Maya shields herself against the confusion of St. Louis by reading fairy-tales and telling herself that she does not intend on staying there anyway. Vivian works in a gambling parlor at night. Maya pities Mr. Freeman because he spends his days at home waiting for Vivian to return. Maya begins sleeping at night with Vivian and Mr. Freeman because she suffers from nightmares. One morning after Vivian has left the bed and the house, Mr. Freeman sexually molests Maya. He does not rape her but rather masturbates on the bed while holding her close to him. Afterward, he threatens to kill Bailey if Maya ever tells anyone, but Maya, who does not understand what has happened and who actually enjoyed being held by someone, cannot understand what caused such a threat. For weeks, Mr. Freeman ignores her, and then molests her again. Again, he ignores her for weeks. Maya feels rejected and hurt, but she loses herself in other things, such as books. She wishes she were a boy because the heroes in all her favorite books and stories are male. Bailey welcomes the move to St. Louis and he makes friends, with whom he plays baseball. Maya, however, does not make any friends during this time. She and Bailey begin to grow apart, so she spends her Saturdays in the library reading fantastic adventures.
In late spring, after Vivian stays out all night one time, Mr. Freeman sends Maya to buy milk. When she returns from the errand, Mr. Freeman rapes her. He threatens to kill her if she screams, and he threatens to kill Bailey if she tells anyone. Afterward, Mr. Freeman sends her to the library, but Maya returns home because of the intense physical pain she feels between her legs. She hides her underwear under her mattress and goes to bed. Vivian thinks she might be coming down with the measles. Later that night, Maya hears Vivian argue with Mr. Freeman. In the morning, Vivian tells Maya that Mr. Freeman has moved out. When Bailey tries to change the linens, the bloodied panties Maya has hidden under the mattress fall out.
Vivian takes Maya to the hospital. Bailey privately urges Maya to name the rapist, assuring her that he would not allow the culprit to kill him. Maya reveals Mr. Freeman’s name, the authorities promptly arrest him. Maya thinks of herself as a grown woman, remembering that her nurses told her that she has already experienced the worst that life has to offer.
Maya feels caught in a trap when the attorney asks her whether there were any sexual incidents with Mr. Freeman prior to the rape. She fears rejection from her family if she admits to the previous incidents, but she does not want to lie either. Ultimately, she lies to the court and Mr. Freeman receives a sentence of one year and one day in prison. Surprisingly, he is temporarily released after the hearing, and a white policeman visits later that night to tell Grandmother Baxter that Mr. Freeman has been beaten to death. Maya hears them quickly drop the subject and briefly discuss casual matters before the policeman leaves.
The family never speaks of the incident, and Maya convinces herself that Mr. Freeman was killed because she lied in order to condemn him. Thinking that she has sold herself to the Devil, Maya resolves to protect others by not speaking to anyone except Bailey. At first the family accepts her silence as fallout from the rape, but after some time, they feel offended and become angry and violent with her.
Maya and Bailey return to Stamps, though Maya is not sure whether Momma has sent for them or whether her St. Louis family simple became unable to handle her silence. Bailey misses Vivian, but Maya finds herself relieved to return to the barren world of Stamps. Bailey exaggerates the wonders of the big city to the curious residents, developing his sarcastic tone, but no one notices his insults. He remains kind only to Maya. She understands Bailey’s frustration, and he understands her silence.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers, whom Maya reveres as the “aristocrat of Black Stamps,” plans to take Maya under her wing and prod her out of her silence. She invites Maya to her house and gives her some books and tells her to read them aloud. Maya delights to find that Mrs. Flowers has made cookies specifically for her. After reading aloud and impressing Maya with her abilities, Mrs. Flowers assigns Maya the task of memorizing a poem to recite during her next visit.
Maya returns exuberantly to the Store with the books and a bag of cookies for Bailey. Finally using her voice, Maya announces that Mrs. Flowers baked some cookies for Bailey. However, Momma flies into a rage and whips Maya because she used a phrase that Momma obscurely found offensive to God.
Whereas in previous chapters, Maya almost begins to appreciate and grow within her surroundings in St. Louis, her guilt-ridden response to Mr. Freeman’s sexual molestation reveals that she has not adjusted well to her parental abandonment and life of isolation. Mr. Freeman takes advantage of Maya because she has never experienced much physical contact or affection, and she confuses Mr. Freeman’s exploitative behavior with the physical attention she has yet to receive as a child. Maya’s need for physical contact confuses the incident in her mind so much that she interprets Mr. Freeman’s threat to kill Bailey as an indication that she has done something wrong, although she cannot say what.
Mr. Freeman also takes advantage of Maya’s caring personality, especially her tendency to care for people in similar positions of neglect and pain. Perhaps trying to foreshadow the rape, Maya shows that she spent much time observing Mr. Freeman as he pathetically awaited Vivian’s return in the evenings. Maya notes that Mr. Freeman has breasts like deflated female breasts and how she feels sorry for him. After the two separate incidences of sexual molestation, Mr. Freeman ignores Maya for weeks, augmenting her feelings of rejection and guilt.
Even though Maya further isolates herself in the library, the books do more good than harm. On the one hand, Maya’s favorite stories and fairy-tales teach her the culturally accepted notion that women cannot be heroes, causing her to wish that she could be male. Nevertheless, Maya ceases to want or need Mr. Freeman’s attention because books provide her with companionship. When Mr. Freeman rapes her, he uses the need for affection she previously expressed to blame her for his abuses. When she expresses reluctance to come anywhere near him, he accuses her of enjoying being near him before.
Maya highlights the idea that even though blacks suffer from racism and oppression, they remain individuals who can inflict suffering on other people. It is highly probable that some of the Baxter family’s associates in the criminal underground—if not Maya’s uncles themselves—killed Mr. Freeman. When the policeman casually reports that Mr. Freeman has been beaten to death, Grandmother Baxter tells the children never to mention Mr. Freeman’s name or what they have heard about his death. Afterward, Maya’s family viciously chastises her for being silent.
Even though many of the adults in Maya’s life show their flaws, Maya continues to receive attention and care from others. The fact that Maya and Bailey have begun to grow naturally apart perhaps exacerbates Maya’s isolation and confusion, but Bailey remains the most important person in her life. He persuades her to reveal the identity of the rapist, and his tearful reaction to learning that the man who lived with him raped Maya reveals the loving support he gives her. Bailey does not betray her trust. He never blames her for the rape or for their sudden return to Stamps. Once there, Mrs. Flowers offers Maya a way to speak without fear. Maya welcomes their return to Stamps because life there is predictable, but both Maya’s silence and a general silence regarding the rape persist, and she continues to carry her unarticulated burden of guilt. Reading aloud from books or reciting poems with Mrs. Flowers allows Maya to speak through the words of others. Maya considers Mrs. Flowers a hero and thus shows that she has begun to forget, to a certain extent, the fact that books portray only males as heroes.
Maya’s immediate reaction to having to lie in court and her subsequent self-imposed silence reveal her strong moral conscience. First, Maya shows that she hates that she must lie out of necessity in the courtroom. She says she now despises Mr. Freeman for causing her to tell a lie, indicating that she may even hate Mr. Freeman more for making her lie than for the rape itself. Moreover, despite the apparent fact that her vicious uncles, enabled by a loose and corrupt legal system, murder Mr. Freeman, Maya feels that her lie in court ultimately caused his death.
At the same time, Maya’s attention to her own guilt concerning matters related to Mr. Freeman does not mean that she feels particularly guilty for the rape itself. Rather, she continues to refer to Mr. Freeman as a “dirty man,” and she begins to strengthen her opinion of herself as an experienced woman. When she enters the courtroom filled with unsavory characters and “smirking mouths,” Maya remembers that the nurses have told her that she has seen the worst life has to offer her, and she uses their words to bolster her confidence. She says, “I was eight, and grown,” showing how the incident ultimately sharpens her precocious sense of self. Undoubtedly, she has lost some of the innocence that led to her accept Mr. Freeman’s advances. Now, she puts the rape behind her to a certain extent and pays even more attention to her own character. Throughout the rest of the book, however, Maya must continue to struggle with growing pains, particularly those associated with sex. While she may grow wiser in some ways in St. Louis, she nevertheless remains a confused child.