Having lived under segregation in Cleveland, Ohio, Bob Jones leaves Ohio to look for work in the defense industry in Los Angeles, which he expects will be a better place to live. Jones is a tall, strong, intelligent, and somewhat arrogant man, who also is preoccupied with racism and the way African Americans, even lighter-skinned blacks like himself, are treated by white people. Still, he is confident he can “make it” in California.
Four days bring about surprising changes in Jones’s life. One day, now working in a shipyard, he has a verbal altercation with Madge Perkins, a “peroxide blonde with a large-featured, overly made-up face.” Every time they are near each other at work, she acts as if she is afraid of him. Jones had always pretended not to notice her “fear,” but today, it angers him; at the same time, it arouses him. She calls him a “nigger,” and he retaliates by calling her a “cracker bitch.” He is immediately demoted from his job as leaderman, or supervisor, for being disrespectful.
Things get worse. Jones joins in a crap game during his lunch break. When one of the white workers claims the game is crooked, Jones gets in a fight and is knocked out. When he regains consciousness, he decides to kill his assailant, not caring if he will hang for murder. He goes to the man’s home after work with a gun, and the man, seeing him, escapes into his house. Jones decides that he is in no hurry to kill him—he can do so anytime he chooses. Jones drives off and puts his gun in the car’s glove compartment.
In the evening, Jones goes on a date with his girlfriend, Alice Harrison, who is described by some of his friends as “the whitest colored girl [Jones] could find.” He picks her up at her home to take her to a swanky hotel for dinner. Alice’s mother and father expect that Jones will buy into their belief that to make it in America, black people should emulate the white upper-middle class. Alice’s parents want him to return to college for a degree to elevate his social standing. When Jones tells them he would rather find a way to “get even with the white folks,” they are shocked, saying he must “accept whatever they [whites] do” for him and try to prove himself “worthy to be entrusted with more.”
Jones and Alice’s date is off to a bad start. At the hotel, they are reluctantly served their dinners and warned not to return. After their unpleasant meal, they visit friends of Alice. Jones sees that Alice is overly intimate with one of the women there, and gets the impression that Alice might be lesbian. Drunk and boorish, he slaps Alice. She breaks up with him. Jones drives away, nourishing an increasing agony about the racist put-downs and insults he has suffered. He feels everything is going wrong at once and that he will kill somebody if he does not get off the streets and away from everyone.
The next day, thinking more clearly, Jones decides he should try to get back his job as leaderman. Though the position has little authority, it has some prestige, plus the perk of military-draft deferment. He talks to the union steward about straightening...