When the story opens, Marguerite (Maya) Johnson and her brother, Bailey Johnson Jr., are three- and four-years-old, and they're on a train from California to Arkansas. We get the feeling that they have bad/absent parents because, um, who puts toddlers on trains by themselves? Anyway, they make it to Stamps, Arkansas safely where their grandmother (Momma) and uncle (Willie) take them in. They live in a store that caters to cotton pickers and lumber workers—it's the hub of the black part of town.
Momma is a strict lady and Uncle Willie isn't afraid to beat children; together, they drill the importance of education into Maya. Her uncle tests them each night after school and punishes wrong answers by burning the kids on a hot stove. On a less awful note, Maya also begins her love affair with literature and crushes hard on Shakespeare.
To put it simply, life in Stamps sucks. Racism flows like water, and you can't even go to the movies without wondering if the KKK might be after you. Maya also watches as white people constantly disrespect her family—and she doesn't take it very well.
After a few years in Stamps… it still sucks. But Maya and Bailey Jr. have finally gotten used to it. Momma is the closest thing they have to a parent and the Store feels like home.
And then—bam. Something big happens. They get Christmas presents from their parents. Which sounds normal, except they thought their parents were dead. A year after that fiasco, their dad (Daddy Bailey) shows up in Stamps. He's basically an egotistical jerk, but he's the closest thing the town has ever seen to a movie star, so he's the center of attention for three weeks. Then, as suddenly as he showed up, he decides to leave—and he takes Maya and Bailey Jr. with him. Not for long, though. He drops them off with their mother (Vivian) in St. Louis on his way to California.
Their mother is amazing. She is beautiful, educated, and part of a well-respected family known for their meanness. Just one problem: Vivian provides for her children through a string of sugar daddies. Shortly after they arrive, they move into a house with Vivian's latest sugar daddy, Mr. Freeman. This is where things start to get very sad, as Mr. Freeman sexually abuses and rapes Maya. She is only eight years old.
Even though Maya tries to keep it a secret, her family discovers what happened. Shortly after he is released from jail, Mr. Freeman is found kicked to death. Maya feels like she has blood on her hands and decides never to speak again. Her family doesn't understand her silence, and she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps.
A dreary year goes by, and then—la!—Mrs. Flowers enters the scene. Mrs. Flowers is educated and soft-spoken, and she introduces Maya to poetry. After their meetings, everything about Stamps seems to get better. Maya stands up to racism for the first time, and she even meets her first friend.
Bailey Jr., on the other hand, doesn't take the move back to Stamps too well. He's a major momma's boy and chooses some less-than-ideal ways to deal with how much he misses his mom. While pretending to have sex with the girls in town, he meets a 14-year-old girl named Joyce who entices him to actually have sex with her. They have a brief romance, but Bailey is heartbroken when she leaves town.
When Bailey Jr. sees a black man who was killed by white men, Momma decides that it is just about time for he and Maya get the heck out of the South. So, off they go again to the other side of the country. This time, they move in with their mother and her family in San Francisco.
Just like last time, Vivian finds a new sugar daddy, Daddy Clidell, and they all move into a huge new house. In case life wasn't enough, World War II begins, and all the Japanese people who lived in the city mysteriously disappear. Like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no one says anything about it or even seems to notice. Creepy. Maya seems to like all the strangeness of San Francisco, though, and she feels at home.
One summer, Maya's dad invites her to spend the vacation with him in Southern California. Sweet! Disneyland! Actually, not so much. Turns out this is a terrible idea.
Maya gets to her dad's house and meets his girlfriend, Dolores, who doesn't like her too much. After an incident in Mexico, Daddy Bailey and Maya fight with Dolores, and Maya gets injured. Rather than stick around, Maya leaves home and hangs out with a community of homeless young adults for a month before heading back to San Francisco.
Back to Bailey. He's a gangster now. Not the 50 Cent kind; more like the Al Pacino kind. When he takes up a prostitute, Vivian kicks him out of the house. Maya gets bored with Bailey out of the house, and decides to get a job as a streetcar conductorette. Even though they don't hire black people, she fights for weeks until she becomes first black conductorette in San Francisco. Go Maya! Oh, but she only keeps the job for a few months. Go Maya?
Back in school, Maya reads The Well of Loneliness and begins to wonder if she is a lesbian hermaphrodite. Naturally. Vivian reassures Maya that this isn't the case, but that doesn't convince her. Neither does having sex with one of the neighborhood boys—but that does get her pregnant.
Somehow, Maya manages to hide her pregnancy until after she graduates high school. Three weeks after graduation, she becomes a mom, and she's pretty freaked out. The novel ends as Maya learns that she can take care of her baby—she can be a good mom.