When the book starts, Marguerite (also known as "Maya") is living in Stamps, Arkansas, with her brother, Bailey; her grandmother, Momma; and her uncle, Willie. Their father sent the children from Long Beach, California, to his mother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps when Maya was three. Maya describes the racism in Stamps, where her grandmother owns the only black store in town. For example, her uncle has to hide from the "boys," or the Klan, when a white woman is supposedly harassed by a black man.
Later, Maya's father sends the children to live with their mother in St. Louis, Missouri, while he returns to California. There, Maya gets to know her maternal grandparents, the Baxters. After Maya is raped by her mother's boyfriend, she returns to Stamps. There, she is mute for a long time, though she eventually regains speech. After graduating from eighth grade, she moves to California to live with her mother.