“The time comes when he thinks, ‘I might just as well fall back; there’s no use pushing on. A colored man just can’t make any headway in this awful country.’ Of course, it’s a fallacy. And if a fellow sticks it out he finally gets past it, but not before it has worked considerable confusion in his life.”
Joel Marshall has ambitions to be a great man. He’s a successful caterer, but he wants more. His daughter, Joanna, shares his desire for greatness and she has a talent for both singing and dancing. She’s at a disadvantage due to her skin color, but she thinks that her success could be a way to break down prejudice. Joanna has the double consciousness spoken of by W. E. B. Du Bois, considering herself an American first, and a colored person second.
Joanna’s romantic interest, Peter Bye, hates white people and thinks the world owes him a living. Maggie Ellersley, a poor girl looking to advance in life, befriends Joanna’s older sister and becomes romantically involved with Joanna’s brother. However, Joanna is a snob who looks down on Maggie for being lower class.
The story takes place mainly in New York and Philadelphia before, during, and after World War I as Joanna, Peter, and Maggie meet in grade school, embark on their various careers, and consider whom they will marry. The drama is mainly driven by poor communication and misunderstandings taking place between the Marshall children and their romantic interests. It’s a story of imperfect characters doing what they think is best at the time, but still hurting those they love.
Racism makes all their lives worse, but it’s usually in the background. The characters deal with the difficultly of not knowing which restaurants will serve them and the frustration of not knowing if the discrimination is intentional or not.
Joanna has a friend who can pass as white who cuts ties with her black friends in order to succeed in the world. Oversees, we see white American soldiers attacking black American soldiers for dating white French women. Black soldiers returning from the Great War are mobbed simply for wearing their uniforms. One soldier decides to remain in France to avoid the racism he faces back home.
While the book addresses the difficultly of living during the Jim Crow era, overall, it’s a book about the importance of love.