Big Ma, Cassie Logan's live-in grandmother, to her astonishment permits her to ride in the wagon to the nearby Mississippi town of Strawberry on market day. Later that day, preoccupied with the shame of a racist encounter with the manager of the town's general store, Cassie accidentally bumps into Lillian Jean Simms, a white girl her own age. Not content with a simple apology, the Simms girl demands Cassie get down from the sidewalk into the road. As Cassie refuses this further humiliation, Mr. Simms intervenes and forces her into the road. Into this ugly confrontation steps Big Ma who insists that Cassie apologize. She does so, reluctantly, but is infuriated with her grandmother. Later, as Cassie prepares to go to bed, Mama explains Big Ma's actions:
"Big Ma didn't want you to be hurt...That was the only thing on her mind...making sure Mr. Simms didn't hurt you."
Not satisfied with that answer, Cassie questions the endemic racism of her environment:
"How come I gotta go 'round calling her 'Miz' like she grown or something?"
Mama, troubled because her only daughter has had her first encounter with brutal inhumanity, explains that Mr. Simms pushed her into the street "because he's one of those people who has to believe that white people are better than black people to make himself feel big."
As Cassie stares at her uncomprehendingly, Mama retells the story of slavery and Christianity corrupted and emancipation:
"Even though seventy years have passed since slavery, most white people still think of us as they did then - that we're not as good as they are - and people like Mr. Simms hold on to that belief harder than some other folks because they have little else to hold on to."
Still not placated by this unjust state of affairs, Mama reminds Cassie that however unchosen the colour of one's skin is, she has infinite "choice over what we make of our lives once we're here...And I pray God you'll make the best of yours."