The narrator and other patrons are in a Newark nightclub, waiting for Lynn Hope and his musicians to begin playing. Most of the crowd are African Americans whom the narrator divides into two groups: “our camp,” which includes those who have had some success, such as being light-skinned or lucky enough to have mothers who were social workers and fathers who were mail carriers, and “those niggers” of the lower class, who work in coin-operated laundries and beauty parlors. Lynn Hope and his men appeal to both groups, although the former cannot quite believe in the musician’s greasy hipness.
When the musicians begin, their music becomes a backdrop for the men’s efforts to meet women. The narrator wonders who he will get. His expectation that he will end up with a light-skinned girl who has fallen on bad times, or a disgraced white girl, illustrates his self-consciousness about his own middle-class status, and he muses that a wino’s daughter would see him as part of that America that is oppressing her.
The narrator’s essay on African American saxophonists as “honkers” defines the honk as “a repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed in its insistence past music.” His recounting of the great “honkers” leads to a description of Big Jay, who “had set a social form for the poor,” and whose earlier performance in the club has set the challenge for Lynn Hope to follow.
Hope tries to meet the challenge inside the club, but when he gets his riff, the crowd pushes him until he leaves the hall, marching at the head of the crowd into Belmont Avenue, stopping traffic with this secret communal expression and gathering an even larger crowd as he proceeds.
The march is peaceful until the police arrive with paddy wagons and fire hoses. They are met by the “Biggers,” who are ready for a violent confrontation. The musicians, the narrator, and others in the crowd who are not ready for this kind of action, “broke our different ways, to save whatever it was each of us thought we loved.”