Julian, a recent college graduate, prepares to escort his mother to her weekly weight-loss class at the YMCA, which she attends to reduce her high blood pressure. He escorts her there every week because she has refused to take the bus alone since integration. She adjusts her garish new hat and contemplates returning it to pay the monthly gas bill. While walking through their dilapidated neighborhood, Julian imagines moving to a house in the country. He declares that he will one day make money, even though he knows he never really will. His mother encourages him to dream, saying that it will take time to establish himself.
She continues to chatter, mentioning that her grandfather once owned a plantation with 200 slaves. Embarrassed, Julian comments that the days of slavery are over, to which she replies that blacks should be free to rise but should do so separately from whites. Both think about the grandfather’s house again, and Julian grows envious, despite the fact that he only saw the house in ruins as a boy. As his mother talks about her black nurse, Caroline, Julian resolves to sit next to a black person on the bus in reparation for his mother’s prejudices.
When they arrive at the bus stop, Julian baits his mother by removing his tie, prompting her to exclaim that he looks like a thug. Julian retorts that true culture is in the mind and not reflected by how one acts or looks, as his mother believes. As they bicker, the bus pulls up and they board. Julian’s mother strikes up conversation with other passengers, eventually pointing out with relief that there are only white people on the bus. Another woman joins in, and the subject of the discussion turns to Julian. Julian’s mother comments that he works as a typewriter salesman but wants to be a writer. Julian withdraws into a mental bubble. He judges his mother for her opinions, believing that she lives in a distorted fantasy world of false graciousness. Although he feels nothing but disdain for her, she has made sacrifices so that he could have a good education.
The bus stops and a well-dressed African American man boards, sits down, and opens a newspaper. Julian imagines striking up conversation with him just to make his mother uncomfortable. Instead, he asks for a light, in spite of the no-smoking signs and the fact that he doesn’t have any cigarettes. He awkwardly returns the matches to the man, who glares at him. Julian dreams up new ways to teach his mother a lesson, imagining that he will ignore her as she gets off the bus, which would force her to worry that he may not pick her up after her exercise class.
Julian retreats deeper into his thoughts, daydreaming about bringing a black lawyer or professor home for dinner or about his mother becoming sick and requiring treatment from a black doctor. Though he would not want to give his mother a stroke, he fantasizes about bringing a black woman home and forcing his mother to accept her. Despite these fantasies, he remembers how he has failed to connect with the African Americans with whom he has struck up conversations in the past.
The bus stops again, and a stern-looking black woman boards with her young son in tow. Julian senses something familiar about her, but he doesn’t know why. The little boy clambers onto the seat next to Julian’s mother, while the black woman squeezes into the seat next to Julian. Julian’s mother likes all children regardless of race and smiles at the little boy. He then realizes with delight that the black woman seems so familiar because she wears the same ugly hat as his mother, and he hopes the coincidence will teach his mother a lesson. The black woman angrily calls out to her son, Carver, yanking him to her side. Julian’s mother tries to play peek-a-boo with the little boy, but the black woman ignores her and chastises her son instead.
Julian and the black woman both pull the signal cord at the same time to get off the bus. Julian realizes with horror that his mother will try to give Carver a nickel as she does with all little children. While they disembark, his mother searches through her purse but can find only a penny. Despite Julian’s warnings, his mother calls after Carver and tells him she has a shiny new penny for him. Carver’s mother explodes with rage, shouting “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” She swings her massive purse and knocks Julian’s mother down to the ground, then drags Carver away.
Julian berates his mother as he collects her items and pulls her up. Disoriented, she sways for a moment before stumbling off. Julian follows and lectures her, saying that she should learn from her encounter with the woman on the bus, who represents all African Americans and their distaste for condescending handouts. Reaching out to grab her arm, he sees a strange expression on her face. She tells him to call for Grandpa or her nurse, Caroline, to fetch her. Wresting herself from his grasp, she crumples to the pavement. Julian rushes to her and finds her face distorted, one eye rolling around and the other fixed on his face before finally closing. Julian starts to run for help but quickly returns to his mother’s side.