Willie stands in the back of a church on a Saturday, coming straight from cleaning a house. Her son, Carson, is sitting in the pews, bored. Willie practices singing with the choir, humming the alto line.
While on the Gold Coast, Christianity serves as an extension of colonization and racist ideas, in America the church serves as a much more hopeful place and a part of African-American culture.
Afterwards, Willie and Carson leave the church. It is a cold fall day, and they walk down the streets of Harlem. When they reach an ice cream parlor, Willie gives a nickel to Carson, and the boy smiles at her for the first time in years.
Carson’s dislike of Willie, as Gyasi goes on to explain, centers on the idea that he has very little contact with his father, and their broken family has caused all three of them a lot of pain and anguish.
The narrative flashes back to her youth, when Willie lives in Pratt City with her father, H. A boy named Robert Clifton comes with his father to the union meeting to hear Willie sing the national anthem. He is the whitest black boy she has ever seen. When she finishes the song, everyone applauds. Robert’s father introduces Willie and Robert afterward, and Robert compliments Willie on her singing.
Unlike the characters in the previous America chapters, Willie has extensive contact and support from her parents, H and Ethe. This provides her with the encouragement she needs to make a better life for herself by moving up to Harlem later in her life.
Willie’s sister Hazel asks if Robert is white, and he says he isn’t, but that he has “a lot of white” in his blood. Hazel says that’s not right; Robert responds by saying it’s not right that H is as “old as dirt.” Willie pushes him down and he looks up at her in surprise. From that point on, they are as close as can be. By sixteen they are dating, by eighteen they are married, and by twenty they have Carson.
Like Quey, Robert struggles with being light skinned, as throughout his life he finds tension between staying true to his black culture and identity and taking advantage of a system that rewards him for being light skinned and adopting white cultural markers.
A month after Carson’s birth, H passes away. A month later, Ethe dies as well, and Willie is inconsolable. She sings at the funeral procession, holding Carson in her arms. She gets comfort both from singing and from her son.
Though the death of Willie’s parents is one of the hardest things she has to endure, by mentioning Carson in the same passage, Gyasi indicates that having contact with one’s family can be a person’s most important support system.
Robert and Willie resolve to move up to New York. They stay with Joe Turner at first, whom they had known back when he was just Lil Joe in Pratt City. Willie is amazed by Harlem—its buildings, its clean air, its people, and its opportunity.
Staying with Joe is an example of how being connected to a family and a community allows people to thrive: Willie and Robert get some initial support that allows them to move to Harlem.
The morning after they move in, Willie and Robert leave Carson and walk around Harlem to find jobs. They notice a hiring sign in a store window, but when the store clerk sees that Robert is married to a black woman, he says that there is no job there.
The store clerk’s statements become the first example of the ways in which Robert and Willie face racism, even in a neighborhood that is predominantly black.
Willie and Robert return to Joe’s apartment, telling Joe that Willie needed to feed the baby. As soon as they arrive, however, Robert turns on his heel and goes back out onto the street. Willie explains to Joe that the people hiring thought he was white. She waits for Robert to return. When he comes back to the apartment, he has a new short haircut and nice, new clothes.
Robert’s new haircut and clothes acknowledge how racism is ingrained into the society itself: that the more he can convince people that he is white and has money, the more likely it is that he can find a job.
Every morning, Willie and Robert wake up and walk out into Harlem to look for work. But this time, Robert always walks a little ahead of her, and they never touch. After two weeks, Robert finds a job, but it takes three more months for Willie to find work as a housekeeper for a wealthy black family named the Morrises.
Not only is Willie hindered by her race, but she also has a more difficult time finding work because of her gender. But it is notable that when she eventually finds work as a housekeeper, she is working for a wealthy black family, marking some amount of progress in the society (in contrast with the Mathisons a few chapters earlier).
During the day, Willie watches the Morrises’ son and cleans their apartment. When Mrs. Morris returns, Willie goes to auditions. She had already been told that she was too dark to sing at the Jazzing. She thinks to herself that if she were Robert, she could get the job no problem. Robert, on the other hand, is too cautious to try and get a better job, worried that he will be found out.
The man at the Jazzing says that Willie can clean the place at night. She accepts the job and tells Robert that the Morrises need her on night duty. However, when Carson begins to call the woman who watches him “Mama,” Robert tells her that she doesn’t need to work. Willie thinks that she’s not meant for a life of only taking care of a child, and snaps at him.
Whereas all of the female characters up to this point have been essentially satisfied and understanding of their narrow role within the home, Willie becomes the first female character in the book to want to escape those traditional gender roles.
Cleaning the Jazzing isn’t too difficult. The audience is whites only, and Willie watches as the audience laughs at an actor pretending to be lost in an African jungle. In another act, three actors pick cotton onstage and sing about how grateful they all are to have such kind masters. Willie knows that none of the members of the audience have ever stepped foot in the South.
The acts at the Jazzing show how even a burgeoning black cultural institution can play into racist stereotypes because the society, and the white audiences, reward those stereotypes.
Willie works at the Jazzing for two months. Her marriage to Robert has been struggling since the night she snapped at him. Most nights, he doesn’t come home. One evening, Willie’s boss tells her that someone has vomited in the men’s room. She knocks on the door twice and then enters.
The combination of societal structures and the various forms of systemic oppression that Willie and Robert face put extra pressures on their marriage, causing an even further downward spiral in their lives and their relationship.
There is a man in the bathroom hunched over the sink, and Willie quickly tries to leave until the man calls her name. She recognizes the voice and stops short. Willie once thought that she knew Robert better than herself, particularly his fear of not being a good father. Knowing this, Willie is terrified that she had not recognized him as the man in the mirror.
Willie’s inability to recognize Robert in the mirror, because he appears to her like any other white man using the bathroom, proves just how far the society has pushed him out of his own culture.
Two white men enter the bathroom. Robert tells them to come back to the bar, but one of them notes that Robert has already found a girl. Willie clutches her mop and tries to go, but one of the men stops her. He caresses her face, and as he starts to move his hand down her body she spits in his face. Robert cries out to her.
And just as the society preys on Robert in allowing him to pass for white and making him fear that he will be found out, the society equally preys on Willie simply for her existence as a black woman in a space dominated by white men.
The two men turn to look at Robert, shocked that he knows Willie. One of the men tells Robert to give Willie a kiss, unzipping his pants. Robert kisses Willie and touches her. Before Robert enters her, the man finishes and immediately grows bored with his game. He tells Robert not to come to work the next day, and the two men leave. Willie is stiff. Robert tells her he will leave that night.
While both Robert and Willie are targeted by these anonymous white coworkers of Robert’s, it is Willie who is robbed of all agency in this incident. She is violated by the person she trusts the most, remaining silent and seemingly still the entire time.
After that day, Joe offers to marry Willie, but she can’t bear it. She and Carson leave in the middle of the night and find a place the next morning. Carson cries for weeks, and Willie is forced to leave him alone for many hours as she goes to work. She finds odd jobs and once in a while she takes auditions, but she finds that she can’t sing anymore.
Again, even though Willie and Robert both experience oppression based on their skin color, Willie is the one who not only then bears the brunt of single parenthood, but also the weight of her child’s hatred in losing a father, while Robert simply leaves the family.
Willie instead goes to church, where she meets Eli. He offers Carson an apple, and the three of them take a walk together. He tells her that he is a poet. Being with him is a rush: over the next few months, he takes her all over New York City. When she becomes pregnant, his adventurous spirit grows. But just after Josephine is born, Eli disappears for three days.
Even when Willie meets and has a child with another man, the pattern essentially repeats, as she becomes responsible for taking care of a newborn baby and a young boy alone while her partner is free to come and go as he pleases.
When Eli returns, Willie tries not to be angry but doesn’t want to make the same mistake she did with Robert. Carson asks if Eli has any apples. He has started to look more and more like Robert, upsetting Willie even more. Eli says he has an apple for Carson, calling him Sonny. Willie growls at him not to call Carson that, as that is what Robert had called him. Carson protests, saying that his name is Sonny.
Willie grows angry as she sees Carson start to look like Robert, perhaps not only because she is upset at what had happened between her and Robert, but also because a physical similarity between Carson and Robert would likely doom Carson to experience the same struggles that Robert had.
The kids grow older; sometimes Willie sees Eli every day, but sometimes he leaves for weeks. She loses jobs trying to take Josephine with her, and so she starts to leave Josephine with Carson, whom she cannot keep in school. They’re evicted three times in six months. When Josephine turns four and Carson turns ten, Willie joins the choir at church, even though she now has a hard time singing in public.
One of the other cruelties of the incident at the Jazzing is not only that Willie had become a single mother and the society makes it incredibly difficult for a single black woman to support a family, but also that she was so traumatized that she had to give up her dream of singing at a jazz club.
Back on the street when Carson is eating his ice cream, Willie nears the edge of Harlem. Seeing so many white people around makes her nervous. They stop at an intersection, and it is only then that Willie notices Robert with a little boy and a woman with curly blonde hair. He kisses the woman before meeting Willie’s eyes.
Just like the characters in the early Gold Coast chapters, here Robert experiences a modern version of marrying for social standing, as he marries a white woman to protect himself and to improve the prospects of his future generations.
Carson tells her that they can cross the street. Willie smiles at Robert, and really forgives him. Robert smiles back, and he and his family turn in a different direction. Willie says that she and Carson should turn back.
Even though Willie forgives him, there is still a kind of tragedy in the actions that Robert has taken, as he has been forced to give up a large portion of his identity in order to be accepted.
That Sunday, the church is packed. Eli’s book of poems is set to be published in the spring, and he has stayed with Willie longer than he has ever stayed before. Willie stands in the back of the church. In a moment of quiet, she drops the song book down on the stage. Everyone in the church turns to look at her, and she steps forward and sings.
The end of Willie’s chapter does provide a happy ending, however, as it demonstrates how people like Willie—through the church, through the arts (like poetry and music)—have created their own new sense of African-American culture and identity, and have found empowerment through that.