"Come Out the Wilderness" tells the story of Ruth, a young black woman working as a typist and then secretary for a life insurance agency in Manhattan, and Paul, her white boyfriend with whom she lives in a cramped, Greenwich Village studio. Paul is an unsuccessful painter trying to sell his art to galleries. The story begins with a scene of Ruth watching Paul from their bed, admiring his body and features, watching him nervously pace their bedroom. He often sleeps until late in the afternoon. Ruth goes to work early and he's usually not home when she returns. He leaves the house late and drinks his way through the early evening with his manager, Cosmo. Ruth doesn't like Cosmo because she suspects that he encourages Paul to leave her.
Not that Ruth thinks, these days, that Paul needs encouraging. She thinks Paul is going to leave her. She's terrified of the possibility. She feels as if she has nowhere to go, if he does. She doesn't think he's leaving her for another woman, she simply thinks it's over between them. When Paul returns home in the early hours of morning, Ruth is still in bed. She tells him good morning and he lights her a cigarette. He tells her that Cosmo found a promising lead for some of his paintings. Paul then proposes to paint a portrait of Ruth. Ruth suspects that for Paul, "a portrait of her was a means of moving far away enough from her to be able to tell her the truth," but she agrees to the idea anyways.
When Ruth leaves the house for work, Paul is asleep. She takes a cab to the office. Baldwin describes the office she works as "only recently become sufficiently progressive to hire Negroes," and the only other black employee was one of the insurance agents, Mr. Davis. The other typists, all white girls, giggle and talk about how attractive they find Mr. Davis, and Ruth sees this as a taunting fetishization of his blackness. The narrative dives into Ruth's past, describing her childhood in the South, her family's struggle to make ends meet, and the hard truth of her parents, that "after a lifetime of labor, should they drop dead tomorrow, there would not be a penny for their burial clothes."
Ruth describes the incident from her girlhood that led to the distance between her and her older brother. When she was seventeen, her older brother found her in the barn with a boy his age and he lost his temper. He beat the boy she was with nearly to death and called his sister dirty. Their father joined in, and Ruth swore they weren't going to do anything, but seeing the state of him on the ground she said, “Goddamit, I wish I had, I wish I had, I might as well of done it!” At this, her father slapped her. Ruth barely talked to her family after this incident, and soon she met a man named Arthur, a musician, twenty years her senior, and they ran away to New York together. She tried to be a singer and found that she wasn't cut out for it. She began waiting tables instead. She left Arthur and dated a few men after him before she landed with Paul.
Paul calls her at work one day before going out with Cosmo. Ruth rebukes him, advising that perhaps he and Paul should eat at dinner, rather than just drink. Paul then tells her that the gallery owner he's trying to sell his paintings to has a daughter who might be interested in him. He and Ruth laugh about it, but it's a tense, nervous laughter on Ruth's end. She knows that Paul is both kidding and not kidding about the gallery owner's daughter. It might be presented as a joke, but he could just as easily end up sleeping with her.
Ruth leaves for lunch very upset. Mr. Davis, the only black insurance agent at the firm, makes Ruth his secretary. This is a promotion from typist, and she would make more money and have more responsibility. The day Paul threatened to sleep with the gallerist's daughter, Mr. Davis invites Ruth for lunch. At lunch, Mr. Davis asks her about her life, where she's from, and where she lives. Ruth learns that Mr. Davis is a "country boy" from Alabama. He went to college in Tennessee and was in the Airforce reserves. Ruth is afraid of the feeling she has around Mr. Davis. She feels at once comfortable and nostalgic for her youth in the South, and afraid that if he knew more about her, she would feel shame at the fact that she's been with white men who don't value her. Mr. Davis tells her he'd like to take her to a music club sometime in the future. She leaves work feeling uncertain about what to do with him.
After she leaves work that day, she refuses to go home because Paul isn't answering the phone. She doesn't want to wait around for him while he may or may not be sleeping with the gallerist's daughter, so instead she wanders. She goes from bar to bar, trying to figure out her next move.
"Come Out the Wilderness" returns the collection to the third-person after several stories narrated from first-person perspectives. It is the first story in the collection to revolve around a female protagonist, and while it addresses similar themes of power dynamics between white and black people in the United States, it also addresses the social pressure and shame felt by a black woman dating white men. Ruth feels both disrespected by Paul, taken for granted, devalued, and taken advantage of, while at the same time, she fears being judged and devalued by black men for dating a white man who has no respect for her.
When Ruth sits in a diner and sees a white man that reminds her of a man she used to date, she remembers their biggest fight, when she confronted him about his flakey behavior. She said, “Look. This is the twentieth century. We’re not down on a plantation, you’re not the master’s son, and I’m not the black girl you can just sleep with when you want to and kick about as you please!” The boy was, at the time, offended by the comparison, and responded acidically, “I guess I’ll get on back to the big house and leave you down here with the pickaninnies." But Ruth's statement proves to be at the very center of the story, which concludes on a similar note. Baldwin writes, "The sons of the masters were roaming the world, looking for arms to hold them. And the arms that might have held them—could not forgive."
As a painter, Paul reinforces this theme of the latent, toxic power dynamic between black people and white people that remains in American society from the slave trade. When he suggests painting a portrait of Ruth, he says, “Yeah. I’ll probably be able to sell you for a thousand bucks." Ruth also suspects that by painting her, Paul is attempting to distance himself from her, make her into an object so that he can more easily abandon her. As a painting, Ruth becomes a commodity to him, something can be bought and sold.