Synopsis:NINA DAVIS wishes she was someone else. A brilliant black teenager in the segregated South, she hates working as a housekeeper alongside her mother JUDITH. Their employer is GIDEON TATHAM, an imperious judge who in the courts fights for civil rights, but in his own home is a tyrant, a drunkard, and a letch.
Seeking a better life, Nina enrolls at a women’s college in New York City, where intends to pass as white. Aware of Nina’s deception, Judge Tatham bankrolls her tuition but then uses the situation to force himself on Judith.
In New York City, Nina falls in love with EDWIN FERRITY, a poor white student, charming but obsessed with money; and at her college, Nina rooms with IRIS VANDERPOOL, a manipulative heiress who happens to be Edwin’s former flame.
In their different ways, Edwin and Iris are as eager to break from their pasts as Nina is. Resenting his poverty, Edwin takes a job as a strong-armed debt collector for a thuggish money lender. Although Edwin is not overtly racist, his job pits him against black families that owe the lender money.
Iris, meanwhile, although not even 22 years old, is already considered a fallen woman in her family, because of a scandal last year involving her relationship with Edwin. She is determined to get him back: a marriage, even to someone of a low background, is preferable to being ruined and then scorned by a nobody.
For a month or so, Nina manages to keep up appearances. She excels in classes, keeps Edwin a secret, and develops something like a friendship with Iris.
Soon, however, the threads begin to unravel. Iris discovers that the boy Nina keeps talking about is her own former beau, and pits them against each other, playing on each of their weaknesses and insecurities.
Edwin's dangerous employer demands repayment. Knowing too well what happens to people who don’t pay him back, Edwin conceives of a desperate scheme to borrow money from Iris’s father.
Nina’s mother, meanwhile, becomes sick, and Judge Tatham writes to Nina demanding her return, and threatening to unmask her.
Cut off from money, Nina takes on cleaning work not entirely dissimilar from what she did in the South. Although she scrambles to maintain her relationships and position as a promising white student in New York City, her past proves inescapable, and a final blow-up with Edwin and Iris sends Nina back home.
Nina at last faces her lifelong shame, and her responsibilities to her family and community. Iris and Edwin are left to their own wretched devices, and Judith makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect her daughter from Tatham.