The story begins on the morning of John Grimes' fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March 1935. John lives in Harlem with his father (Gabriel, an austere lay-preacher) his mother, Elizabeth; his younger brother, Roy; and his two younger sisters, Sarah and baby Ruth. Another sibling is on the way. The family is integrally involved in the nearby storefront church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The novel opens with John's mental descriptions of the sinners in the neighborhood, the church, a typical Sunday-morning service, Sunday school, and Brother Elisha (a few years older than John and already saved, he is the object of John's abundant admiration). The plot begins with John waking up, remembering that today is his birthday, and then recalling that he has "sinned his hand" (masturbated) in the school lavatory. This act has precipitated in him a crisis of spirit. This crisis is aggravated by an antagonism with his father, for he believes that submission to God requires submission to his father. John hopes for another future. He is intelligent, excels in school, and has earned the praise of blacks, as well as his white teachers. This confidence in his intelligence buoys him up against his father's physical, emotional, and psychological tyranny.
John's siblings and mother are in the kitchen when he enters. As usual, Roy is arguing with their mother. In John's eyes, the entire place is dirty, irredeemably filthy. He eats his breakfast as Roy and his mother argue about his father. No one has mentioned John's birthday. Roy, whom everyone at the church hopes will soon experience a divinely wrought change of heart, rails against their father's puritanical policies—he resents Gabriel's renunciation of all things external to the church and Bible, and he protests most of all his physical beatings. "When I have children," says Roy, "I ain't going to treat them like this.... I'm sure this ain't no way to be." Elizabeth defends their father, claiming that he knows what is right for Roy's soul and is doing his best to keep Roy out of jail. The obvious affection between mother and son soon ends the argument, and it is time for Saturday chores. John's assignment is to sweep the front room and dust the furniture.
This is John's weekly Sisyphean task. No amount of cleaning seems to do much good. Dusting the mantelpiece, John looks at photographs of himself and his siblings as infants, of his Aunt Florence, and of his father as a young man—by his side is a young wife who, according to Aunt Florence, is now in heaven. John thinks about this first wife, Deborah, and about how she knew his father when he was young in the South; maybe she could have told John how to win his father's love.
He finishes his chores and is left alone for a moment with his tortured thoughts. Then, his mother calls him and gives him a little birthday money, along with some words of love and encouragement. He perceives in these words a great sadness on the part of his mother but cannot yet comprehend this melancholy. His mother sends him out to buy himself a present.
John goes to Central Park and climbs his favorite hill. From the summit he gazes out at the city. He has visions of conquest, of a conceivable glory on this earth, in this city, as opposed to the glory of the afterlife promised by his father's narrow path. The narrow way doesn't call to him now; he wants Broadway. When these exaltations subside, he runs down the hill and out onto Fifth Avenue. He sees the beautiful, elegant (white) people treading that avenue and imagines a moneyed life for himself, his wife, his children. These people before him surely do not read their Bible every night or go to a holy church; yet he has difficulty imagining them burning in hell for eternity. Some white people have been friendly to him at school, including teachers. Thus, he feels certain that white people are kind and will honor him when he distinguishes himself. His father, however, claims that all whites are wicked and deceitful and that God will "bring them low." John now recalls reading about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks in the South. He realizes that, in fact, he doesn't dare enter any of the shops from which the white ladies emerge, that this is not his world—that he could grow to hate these people.
John goes to a movie theater, despite his apprehension that one of the saints, or saved members of his church, might see him enter. The fate of a character in the movie has a powerful effect on John and sets him to thinking of Hell, redemption, and the cruel choice he faces between a religious life and a life filled with the delights of the world. It is late afternoon when he returns home. There he finds the family and Aunt Florence tending to Roy, who has been cut in a knife fight.