Life is . . . well I heard that life is just a short walk from cradle to the grave."" That's how Bill James explains life to his adopted child Cora in Charleston, S.C., in 1905; and this is the story of black Cora's walk through the lowering agony, danger, and hard times in white America up to the 1950s. To Bill on his deathbed, young Cora promises to ""go to the old slave market, say, 'That's all you gonna get, my father is the last . . . I belong to myself.'"" But, after Bill's death, Cora makes her first great mistake: she marries oily blowfish Kojie, a man of inflated rhetoric and greed, in order to avoid a move with her mother to a no-life rural hideaway. So she escapes Kojie and travels to New York to join Cecil--her youthful love who, having been tortured by white punks, went to Harlem to get into the crusade of Marcus Garvey. The two lovers sail on one of Garvey's black-owned ships to Cuba and back (an exotic dream-journey), they marry, and Cora bears a daughter. But Cecil's life's blood is given totally to mismanaged black political movements, and there's little spirit or money (though much love) left for his family. Yet ""I love him still . . . I have named him 'home.'"" And Cora begins her own Harlem career by serving at respectable refreshment-and-cards Prohibition parties, then touring with a vaudeville troupe and managing a gambling house. There are one or two lovers along the way, but, at the close, Cora thinks that ""No man loved me as hard as I ever loved back."" Throughout, Childress drums up robust and vital dialogue and people, a counterpointing chorus for ""every colored woman that's ever had to stand squarefooted and make her own way."" But unlike Toni Morrison, Childress does not deal with the inner convolutions of race consciousness; Cora's rage, despair, and celebrations are up front and downstage center -- stormy, explicit, and of a direct testimonial power.