As the congregation belts out a familiar hymn, it is time for Elizabeth's extended flashback. When she was eight, her sickly mother died and her world changed; her aunt came and brought Elizabeth back with her to Maryland, effectively banishing Elizabeth's beloved father from her life. She despised her aunt for taking her away, for her aunt's austerity, for her constant reminders of all that she was doing for Elizabeth. Elizabeth's defense was her pride, and for this, her aunt rebuked her the more, warning that the Lord would lay her low soon enough.
Richard was working as a grocery clerk when Elizabeth met him in 1919. She fell completely in love with him. He hated the South and asked Elizabeth to join him when he left for New York, where they could get married. Claiming she wanted to take advantage of the North's superior opportunities for black people, she persuaded her aunt to let her stay with a distant relative in Harlem. She and Richard got jobs in the same hotel.
Under her aunt's watchful eye, or in fear of her aunt's judgment, Elizabeth had preserved her "pearl" (i.e., her innocence) while in Maryland. But in New York City, among the multitudes, no one cared how she acted—and she fell into sin with Richard. Richard and his friends were bitterly anti-religious, but she could not think of leaving him and this profane world behind for fear of what might happen to him without her. He was fragile and she was his strength. They were very happy together at first, and despite what Gabriel might tell her, she will never regret their time together. She does regret, however, not telling Richard that she was pregnant. She hadn't wanted to burden him further or pressure him into marriage.
One night, after escorting Elizabeth home, Richard was waiting alone for the subway when several black youths who had just robbed a store ran up and joined him on the platform. The police hauled them all off together. Richard was beaten, held in prison, and brought to trial. Although he was eventually released, the damage to his reputation had been done, and his name was known to the police; he committed suicide that night.
Elizabeth met Florence when the two of them worked as cleaning women in the same Wall Street office building, soon after John's birth. The two became friends, despite the difference in their ages. Through Florence, Elizabeth met the recently widowed Gabriel when he came north. Gabriel brought her back to the faith from which she had strayed; he offered her strength, protection, and guidance, promising to love John as his own. For the first time since Richard's death Florence had hope.
Elizabeth remembers the day of John's birth—all of her cursing and suffering and then the moment she heard John cry. At this moment a real cry wrenches her from her reverie. John is on the church floor (the threshing-floor), crying out. He is "astonished beneath the power of the Lord."
Gabriel is Elizabeth's "hiding-place hewn in the side of the mountain." She went to him for security, out of a desperate longing to return to grace—not out of love. Both she and Gabriel were looking for a sign of divine forgiveness and believed that their meeting was that sign. That is, Gabriel believed it was a sign, and Elizabeth hoped it was, and any source of hope to her was worth grabbing onto. Elizabeth had lost the two men she loved—her father and Richard—and perhaps she simply felt that love was a luxury she could no longer afford with her soul in peril and an infant boy to care for.
In his warped form of reasoning, Gabriel is right to worry that the depth of his wife's repentance may not suffice; for all her prayers and piety since meeting Gabriel, Elizabeth still honors the memory of her past with Richard. She accepts that she once fell from the true path, for her religion and her husband tell her so, but she cannot bring herself to renounce her love for Richard or her firstborn son, and so she remains fallen. Her ties to this world are stronger than Gabriel's, yet she judges herself by the standards he sets for her.
Each of the novel's principal adult characters arrives at a feeling of powerlessness and bitter hatred due to his or her experience as a black person in a racist society. Florence, for her part, has bought into racist categorizing in order to distance herself from those on the very bottom tier. She has turned her bitterness and hatred against black people—against "common niggers" and "the black scum of this wicked city." Gabriel's moment comes after a black man is lynched. Gabriel cannot help imagining himself violently crushing the forehead of some generic white man. Yet he must walk through the town with head lowered, must endure the insults of whites and—what is perhaps the greatest insult—the whispered admonition by one white to another to leave him alone because he is a "good nigger." When, years later, Roy is cut in a skirmish with white boys, John sees in his father this same combination of hatred, wrath, terror, and, ultimately, impotence.
For Elizabeth, the breakthrough moment of hatred and helplessness comes at the nadir of Richard's experience in prison. She realizes, after visiting Richard, that she cannot think of a single decent white person—that she hates white people and their world and hopes that "one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility...." But hatred is not an enduring emotion for Elizabeth. She is wearier, more melancholic, more spiritually downtrodden by her suffering. Gabriel and Florence, on the other hand, have tended the fires of their hatreds for many years. Given these three responses of the older generation to a racist world, the question is how the younger John will respond to the injustice of this world once he has to confront it. Elizabeth sees in her son a "stiffness...that would be hard to break, but that, nevertheless, would one day surely be broken."