Spring finally arrives in New York City in 1926 and Joe Trace still sits at his window or on the stoop, crying openly and blowing his nose into the handkerchiefs that Violet so carefully launders. Joe had never cheated on Violet before he met Dorcas and the narrator thinks of him as a man who stopped growing up at the age of sixteen. He still loves peppermint candy and maybe he feels proud that he never chased women like all the "sweetback" men who stand around on street corners looking cool. Perhaps, thinks Joe, if he had told one of his two buddies, Stuck or Gistan, what was going on with Dorcas then things would not have ended as they did.
Joe picks up the stream of narration and addresses the reader as though he were on trial, building his case. He describes how he saw the young girl in the candy store and how he would never tell another man about what was going on. He had no interest in bragging and Stuck or Gistan would not have understood. The day that he saw her at Alice's he heard her name for the first time. The only person he would have told was Victory with whom he grew up.
Joe was born in 1873 and was taken in by the Williams family when their son Victory was just three months old. Victory and Joe grew up as brothers but Joe knew that they didn't share the same parents and so he gave himself the last name "Trace" when he misunderstood something that Rhoda Williams said. He hoped that his mother and father would come back for him. When Joe and Victory were young men, they were chosen by the best hunter in Vesper County to go with him on his trips. This honor marked the beginning of Joe's love for the woods. He thinks of this opportunity as the second change in his identity, the first being when he named himself "Trace." The third change came in 1893 when Vienna burned in a fire and Joe met Violet in Palestine. When the two married, they worked for five years for a man who kept building up their debt. Joe changed again in 1901 when he bought his first piece of land and was then driven off it unfairly. The fifth change occurred when the couple moved to New York City in 1906 and then the sixth one took place when the couple moved from Little Africa uptown to Harlem.
Joe and Violet fought their way into an apartment on Lenox Avenue where blacks could live with as many as five rooms. Joe worked in hotels and picked up the Cleopatra cosmetic sales. Joe marks the next change in himself at 1917 when riots broke out and he was attacked with a pipe by some white men. The seventh and final change happened in 1919 when Joe danced down the street with the black soldiers of company 369 returned from the war and marching. Everything was good until 1925 when Violet started slipping away and sleeping with a doll in her arms, and Joe began to feel a loneliness that he never knew before.
As the novel progresses, the middle-aged female narrator who seems to speak at the very start of the book becomes more and more depersonalized and starts to inhabit the empty spaces between and within Morrison's characters. While at the opening of the novel, she seemed to know Joe and Violet no better or worse than the other members of their community, now the narrator seems to know these characters more intimately. The narrator immediately appears to be another character in the plot, one to whom the reader will eventually be introduced, but she slowly starts to fade and seems to be, at different times, a stand-in for the jazz music of the era or for the city landscape itself.
The City's inhabitants, people like Joe Trace and Violet, think that they hold much more power and sway over their lives and identities than they actually do; the narrator watches as the City shapes them. Like the music that floats form its streets and rooftops, the City exerts a spell over these people and spins them "round and round about the town." It "makes you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to."