Chapters 1–5

Three-year-old Maya and her four-year-old brother, Bailey, are sent to Arkansas to live with their grandmother (Momma). Momma owns a store at the center of the Black community and it is there that Maya experiences life lessons about racism, poverty, and more. As a child, she constantly hears from others that she is ugly.

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Chapters 6–10

Maya and Bailey receive gifts from their parents, which make them wonder why they were sent away in the first place, and out of anger they destroy the blond doll their mother sent. Maya’s father, Big Bailey, comes to visit, and Maya has difficulty connecting with him. She feels equally distant to her mother, Vivian, due to her beauty and personality. Maya and Bailey move in with Vivian and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.

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Chapters 11–15

While Bailey thrives and makes friends, Maya is molested and eventually raped by Mr. Freeman while Vivian is away. Mr. Freeman is arrested but temporarily released after his hearing, and during this time he is beaten to death. Maya, believing she was responsible, vows not to speak to anyone except for Bailey. When Maya and Bailey are sent back to Momma, Mrs. Bertha Flowers cares for Maya and hopes to prod Maya out of her silence by having her read books aloud, which Maya delights in. 

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Chapters 16–19

Maya works for Mrs. Cullinan, who insults Maya with a racial slur when Maya purposefully breaks her fine china to get fired. Bailey explains to Maya that he stayed out late one night because he was watching a movie with an actress who looked like Vivian.

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Chapters 20–22

Maya befriends Louise and learns a boy has a crush on her. Bailey loses his virginity to an older girl and is heartbroken when she runs off with a railroad porter. Maya shares how she experienced her first confrontation with mortality when she attended a funeral.

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Chapters 23–26

Maya recounts her eighth-grade graduation and her disillusionment with the white speaker whose speech is at odds with the reality of the Black community. Maya details two experiences of racism in her life, one involving a white dentist, and another wherein Bailey came home asking why white people hate Black people. The children go to live with Vivian, and Vivian marries Daddy Clidell.

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Chapters 27–31

Maya says Daddy Clidell is the only father figure she has ever known, and she admires his ability to con bigoted white men. While spending the summer with Big Bailey and his girlfriend Dolores, Maya accompanies Big Bailey to Mexico, where she is forced to drive home a drunken Big Bailey. Dolores and Big Bailey fight over Maya’s presence, and Maya and Dolores have a physical altercation. Maya leaves but doesn’t know where to go.

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Chapters 32–36

Maya spends a month with a diverse group of teenagers in a junkyard. When she returns to Vivian, she notes that Bailey and Vivian have become estranged. After taking a semester off from school, Maya becomes the first Black person to work on the San Francisco streetcars, and when she returns to school, she has a deeper understanding of how Black American women must contend with both racism and sexism. Maya has an encounter with a boy that leads to her pregnancy, and she gives birth to a son.

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