It is Harlem in the middle of the Depression, and Cora James is "beginnin' to look life and age in the face." She began the game with at least two strikes against her -- born black in 1900 in Charleston, S.C., and orphaned at birth, she has exemplified and frequently repeats something she was told as a child: "Hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper." She has eaten more than her share, beginning with her fifth birthday, when she learns the meaning of a sign in a public park: "It says WHITE ONLY." We must not go in."
She has learned to put a "latch' on her mouth" and to tell the pretty lies that win approval: "I am a child of God and my determination is to someday become a teacher in order to uplift and enlighten my benighted people." She has been married twice, with little satisfaction either time.
She has stood on the site of Charleston's old slave market and decided to run away to a new life. "Slave Market, you've had all of me that you're gonna get. The rest of me belongs to me." And she has experienced Harlem in the Depression, which is very much like another kind of slave market.
How do you build a life out of such unpromising material? Her estranged second husband, Cecil, tells her two ways: "Some people get caught in a box and fight their way out; others hang up curtains and call it home." All around her are the shattered remains of those who have given up the struggle and have run for refuge to alcohol or religion or empty, futile dreams of power and glory. Cora samples and rejects makeshift solutions; she has a rent party once (charging for entrance and food, hoping to make enough to pay the landlord). It's a success but she vows not to do it again. ("The place is packed and I don't know half the faces.")
She walks through a picket line to take a job in the garment district but leaves after half a day. Religion offers a fitful respite, but she cannot take it seriously when, in Father Divine's restaurant, she is told "Father Divine is God." Free room and board may be "enough to make some folks believe and follow," but in the long run Cora can follow only herself. Her goal is not necessarily to be rich but "at least 'nigger rich.' which is just a wee bit more than you absolutely need at the moment -- two months ahead of the sheriff."
When her opportunity comes, it is from an unexpected direction: Impressed by her abilities as a poker player, a benefactor makes her the proprieter of an illegal gambling club in Harlem. She has a picture of Mona Lisa in the foyer and plays Caruso records for the boss, and they read together the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, which is very much like her own: "Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."
The story of Cora James wanders considerably, though she herself recognizes early on that "life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave." At the end the reader is left with no firm conclusion that can be put into a neat sentence or two. But the wandering has been through some interesting scenery, and instead of a conclusion the reader, has come to know a human being -- complex, struggling valiantly and totally believable
Cora James represents a transistional generation in black American society -- the descendants of slaves who had to work out a secure new identity in the first half of the present century. Victims of scorn or condeiscension by most of white society in their lifetimes, they have not always faced much better at the hands of the proud militants who are their children, but they did something that was both difficult and necessary, and on the whole (despite many failures) they did it well. In Cora's story, Alice Childress introduces some of the people who did this necessary work -- people ranging from the black nationalist followers of Marcus Garvey to entertainers who had to put blackface makeup on their black skins to perform in minsstrel shows. It is a story that should be known, and she tells it well.