"Previous Condition" is the first story in the collection to be told from a first-person perspective. Its narrator, Peter, is an actor in his twenties, living in New York City and struggling to find gratifying work and a place to live, largely due to the fact that he is black, and white landlords refuse to rent to him, even when his Jewish friend Jules rents rooms in his name. The story begins in the "dirty furnished room" Jules recently rented for him. Peter describes the room as having a suffocating effect. He's been sleeping poorly, having nightmares and waking up in a sweat, as if he's been running in his sleep.
The scene is broken up by Peter's memory of the first time he was addressed as a racial slur. He was a child, and he retrieved a ball for a little white girl. When he asked her to play, she told him, “My mother don’t let me play with niggers." Peter, at the time, didn't know what that word meant. He just knew she meant it to hurt him. He stuck his tongue out at her, and she yelled the word after him as he walked home. He asked his mother that night what the word means, and she says, “Baby, don’t fret. Next time somebody calls you nigger you tell them you’d rather be your color than be lowdown and nasty like some white folks is."
Peter recounts how he left home at sixteen and how he hated where his mother lived. He hated how it felt so stagnant, and how the black people he grew up around seemed stuck in this little neighborhood in New Jersey. He says of his childhood neighborhood, "We lived in an old shack in a town in New Jersey in the nigger part of town, the kind of houses colored people live in all over the U.S. I hated my mother for living there. I hated all the people in my neighborhood. They went to church and they got drunk. They were nice to the white people. When the landlord came around they paid him and took his crap." When he left home, he left a note telling his mother he'd be back, but she dies when he's twenty-two. He returns home for her burial.
The next scene Peter describes happens a year after his mother dies. He and his friend and sometime-lover Ida are driving through upstate New York. Peter describes Ida as coming from "the kind of family called shanty Irish. She was raised in Boston. She’s a very beautiful woman who married young and married for money." Ida sometimes relates her experience of growing up poor and white to Peter's experience of growing up poor and black, and accuses him of being self-pitying.
Peter then returns to the scene of the stuffy little rented room where he was staying partly in secret, because Jules had been the one to rent the room for him, and the landlady isn't aware that Peter is black. As he's getting dressed, the landlady pounds on the door. She tells him he has to leave. When he tells her he's legally allowed to be there and that the room was rented in his name, she says, “I got the right to know who’s in my house! This is a white neighborhood, I don’t rent to colored people. Why don’t you go on uptown, like you belong?” to which Peter responds, “I can’t stand niggers." In the end, Peter realizes it's a losing battle. He doesn't want a confrontation with police, because he knows it's a confrontation he will lose. So he finishes dressing, packs his belongings, and goes to Jules's apartment.
Jules feels badly about what happened; he reminds Peter that as a Jewish person, he experiences discrimination, too. Peter says, "Oh, I know, you’re Jewish, you get kicked around, too, but you can walk into a bar and nobody knows you’re Jewish and if you go looking for a job you’ll get a better job than mine! How can I say what it feels like? I don’t know. I know everybody’s in trouble and nothing is easy, but how can I explain to you what it feels like to be black when I don’t understand it and don’t want to and spend all my time trying to forget it?" Jules offers Peter his floor to sleep on until he finds another place.
Peter has a date with Ida later that evening. They meet at an Italian restaurant in the Village. By the time Ida arrives, Peter has already had three cocktails. They order food and some drinks, and eventually Peter tells her about what happened earlier that day. He's despondent about it, but she doesn't allow him to feel bad. She tries to lift his spirits by parroting the same things Jules said to Peter, that they were "all in this together," but Jules doesn't want to hear it. They reach a turning point in the conversation where, understanding that he's not going to get through to her, Peter resorts to irony. He grins, "the painted grin of the professional clown. 'Don’t worry, baby," he says, "'I’m all right. I know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna go back to my people where I belong and find me a nice, black nigger wench and raise me a flock of babies.'" Ida raps his knuckles with her utensil to scold him and he stands up and screams, knocking the candle over, and says, “Don’t do that, you bitch, don’t ever do that!”
The other diners, mostly white, regard them now with caution and suspicion. The waiter comes over and asks Ida if she's all right, and Peter describes the way she sends him away "like a princess dismissing a slave." Ida apologizes to Peter, realizing her role in the scene that caused him undue discomfort and unwanted attention. They set a date for the following day. Peter then goes uptown to sit in a bar for a while. He goes to a "rundown bar on Seventh Avenue," habituated by mostly black people. An older woman comes on to him; she says, "Hello, papa. What you puttin' down?" to which he replies, "Baby, you can't pick it up." She says to him, "Nigger ... you must think you's somebody" (Baldwin). By the end of the night, Peter buys her and her younger friend a beer. He finds that he is, after all, interested in knowing what she's like in bed. He expresses a feeling of estrangement at this bar. Even though he's a black man, and any white person who walked in wouldn't think he was out of place sitting there, he feels like a sore thumb, sticking out in the crowd, and he feels like the other black people in the bar also know that he doesn't belong.
"Previous Condition" demonstrates how the discrimination faced by people of different backgrounds cannot be lumped in together as one synonymous experience of discrimination. Peter's friends Ida and Jules are both from marginalized groups, Irish and Jewish respectively, but Peter points out that they both have the benefit of also having white skin. The background for which they are discriminated against is not something that obviously manifests wherever they go. Peter points out to Jules, after he's kicked out of his apartment, that Jules can walk into any bar and people won't automatically know that he's Jewish. And by "people," Peter means the gaze of white people.
The white gaze is something that factors prominently into this story, particularly in the restaurant scene with Ida. When Peter yells at Ida for rapping his knuckles, the mood in the restaurant changes. Peter describes it: "I fell back into my seat. My stomach felt like water. Everyone was looking at us. I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat." After he yells, Peter describes Ida's face as turning "perfectly white," which on the one hand is a common way of describing someone stricken with horror—the color draining from their face—but in the context of this scene and of Ida's background, the "perfect whiteness" of her face acts also as a type of camouflage that allows her to de-escalate the situation. Peter notes that when Ida dismisses the waiter, she does so "like a princess dismissing a slave." The whole scene reinforces Peter's point that Jules and Ida, despite being Jewish and Irish, are able to present as white people and thus are able avoid scrutiny by other white people; even if those other white people are anti-Semitic or anti-Irish, they wouldn't necessarily know.
The story continues to reinforce this notion that for people of color, the discrimination they face is entirely different from people of minority groups who are able to present as white people of non-minority groups. When Peter argues in the hallway with the landlady, he says, "I was aware of my body under the bathrobe; and it was as though I had done something wrong, something monstrous, years ago, which no one had forgotten and for which I would be killed." This feeling of being targeted is directly related to his body, because his body is what signals to the outside world that for which he is discriminated against. By the end of the story, Peter explicitly states his feeling of isolation as a black person who is shunned or misunderstood by white people, but doesn't feel at home and accepted within the black community.