Melba first experienced racism at birth. There was a problem with her delivery because she was a good-sized baby; the doctor who delivered her used forceps and injured her scalp. A few days later, Melba developed an infection at the forceps site. At the white hospital in Arkansas which "reluctantly treated the families of black men who worked on the railroad", a doctor operated to insert a drainage system beneath the infant Melba's scalp.
Twenty-four hours later, Melba's condition had not improved, but Melba's mother could not find any medical personnel who would take her concerns seriously. Melba soon developed a high fever and began convulsing, and her mother and grandmother believed she was going to die. Just by accident, Melba's mother learned from a black janitor who had been present during the baby's operation that the doctor had told his white nurse that Melba's head must be irrigated with Epsom salts and warm water every two or three hours after the procedure. Mother confronted the nurse, who admitted that what the janitor had said was true, but rationalized her negligence by muttering, "we don't coddle niggers". Melba's mother performed the Epsom salt treatments herself, and the infant Melba survived (Chapter 1).
Raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Melba continued to live in an atmosphere of racism. As a toddler, she could sense the fear that her parents and other adults in her life experienced whenever they were among white people. By the time she was four, she "was asking questions neither (her) mother nor grandmother cared to answer", about why "all the ugly drinking fountains, the dingy restrooms, and the back of buses" were reserved for 'Colored'" (Chapter 2).