When Maya Angelou was three years old and her brother was four, they were sent from their father in California to their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Their grandmother runs a store there, which is the center of life in the Negro community of the town. Maya starts reading and enjoying literature while she is in Stamps, Shakespeare especially, along with prominent black writers.
Maya talks about her great love for her brother. They are opposite in appearance, with him being more attractive and graceful; but despite their differences, their friendship is vitally important to the young Maya.
Angelou tells of how her grandmother's unfailing subservience around every white person angers her. A few poor white girls mock Momma, and then one does a handstand, showing off the fact that she isn't wearing any underwear. Maya is enraged at the girls' behavior, but Momma stands there and acts politely toward them.
The depression hits Stamps, and leads to difficulty making ends meet. Momma is able to keep the store going through a system of trade. Christmas comes, and Maya and Bailey get presents from their parents, who they hadn't heard from for years. Neither of them wanted to be reminded of being sent away, and become sad thinking about it.
Maya and Bailey's father comes to Stamps the next year, and it is hard for them to face their father. When he leaves, he takes Maya and Bailey with him, which makes them feel wanted again. But they soon find out he is leaving them with a mother that they don't even know. When they finally do meet their mother, though, they are completely taken with her; this soothes Maya and Bailey's sadness at being abandoned by their father.
Maya and Bailey find that the big city and its people are nothing like those of Stamps. Angelou describes the extended family there, including another grandmother, and her mother's three ruthless, bad-tempered brothers. Maya and Bailey live with their mother and their mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.
Mr. Freeman molests Maya one morning, and she is stunned by the experience. He threatens to kill Bailey if she ever tells, which scares Maya into silence. Later, Mr. Freeman rapes her when no one else is home, and Maya is both physically and emotionally crushed. Even before her mother finds out, Mr. Freeman is sent packing; Maya is resolved to stay quiet. Then her brother and mother find her stained panties, and know what happened to her.
Mr. Freeman is arrested and is put on trial. At the trial, Mr. Freeman's lawyer asks Maya whether Mr. Freeman had touched her before, she lies and says no because she feels she has to. She feels worse about this lie than anything else. When she hears that Mr. Freeman was beaten to death, she feels so badly about this lie that she decides to stop talking to everyone but Bailey. Then, she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps, perhaps because of Maya's muteness.
Maya and Bailey become a curiosity to the people of Stamps, who come by to see them and ask them about the city. Life becomes muted and pale to Maya, and she is mute for a few years, not saying anything to anyone other than Bailey. One day, a graceful, proper woman named Mrs. Flowers invites Maya to her house to have a talk. Mrs. Flowers says that although Maya does good work in school, she needs to talk; Mrs. Flowers stresses that spoken language is essential. Mrs. Flowers sends Maya home with books, expecting her to read them aloud. Maya finally regains the will to speak, and feels very special at being noticed and taught by Mrs. Flowers.
Maya begins to work for Mrs. Cullinan, a tyrannical white woman in town. Once Mrs. Cullinan treats her rudely and refuses to call her by her proper name, Marguerite, Maya begins to strongly dislike her. Maya finally decides to drop Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dishes and get fired. Maya's plan is successful, and satisfying since Mrs. Cullinan finally calls her by her real name.
Bailey comes back late from the movies one Saturday, which makes Momma worried. Momma and Maya find him walking around and looking dejected; Maya is especially worried for him. At last Bailey tells her that he saw an actress in one of the movies who looks exactly like their mother. Maya goes with Bailey to all the movies that the actress is in, and they think that it is their mother onscreen.
The store is crammed with people listening to a Joe Louis fight on the radio; he is fighting a white man, and of course they all support Joe Louis because he is black. When he wins, they believe that "Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world"; his victory gives hope to the people of Stamps.
Maya begins to form her first friendship, with a girl in her class named Louise. Then, Bailey meets Joyce, a girl 4 years older than him (he is 11, she is 15). Joyce begins to hang about the store to be around Bailey; Bailey begins to steal things for Joyce, who is poor. Joyce leaves suddenly, with a railroad porter she met, and Bailey becomes unpleasant toward Maya.
On a stormy, spooky night, George Taylor, whose wife, Florida Taylor, had died during the previous summer, comes by. Maya was forced to go to the funeral by Momma, and there she was confronted with the reality of death for the first time. She realized when she saw Mrs. Taylor's body, how strong and how final death is, and this has a profound effect on her.
Graduation day is soon approaching, with ceremonies held for those finishing 8th grade, including Maya, and those leaving high school. Maya's competitor Henry Reed gets to give the class speech; but Maya is so excited about the occasion that she doesn't mind. Finally, the day arrives; the graduating students get dressed up, and their families watch the ceremonies in a crowded auditorium.
Mr. Edward Donleavy, a kind of school superintendent, is the graduation speaker. He tells of the much better opportunities given to the white school in town, and then mentions that some graduates of the black school have managed to become athletes. Mr. Donleavy seems to say that the best black boys can do is to become athletes, and doesn't even mention the girls. Maya is livid, as are most of the people in the; it crushes the celebratory spirit of the ceremony, and reminds them that their lives are already set out for them.
Henry Reed delivers his address to the class, as planned; then, he starts to sing the "Negro National Anthem," which is banned from being sung at public events. People join in and sing, and the condescension of Mr. Donleavy is purged. Maya feels a part of the black community for possibly the first time.
Maya has two very bad cavities, from eating too many sweets. There aren't any black dentists in Stamps, so Momma decides to take her to a white dentist instead. Momma asks for Maya to be treated, citing the loan she gave him during the depression; but the dentist gets angry and says he'd rather treat a dog than a negro patient. Momma tells Maya to wait outside, while she goes in to talk to Dr. Lincoln; Maya describes a fantasy scene, in which Momma gets revenge against Dr. Lincoln and makes him apologize for his insults to her. Unsuccessful, Momma resolves to take Maya to the black doctor many miles away in Texarkana.
Bailey comes into the store one day, looking completely shocked. He tells them that he saw a dead black man fished out of the pond; white man stood over the body and smiled, which disturbed Bailey. Bailey wants to know why white people hate black people so much, and what black people ever did wrong. Momma and Uncle Willie avoid the question completely. Maya thinks that Uncle Willie and Momma decide to send them to California because they know that Maya and Bailey won't be able to live with the way things are there. Momma decides to take them out to Los Angeles by train.
Maya gets nervous about seeing her mother again. Her mother meets them, and makes Momma and Maya comfortable in L.A., as she makes living arrangements for in San Francisco. Maya recalls Momma adapting quite well to the very different world of California during this time; when she says she is going to leave, Bailey and Maya are nervous about living with their mother again.
Their mother is as lovely and captivating as they remember her, and once again they begin to feel better. They live in a small apartment in Oakland for a while, with Grandmother Baxter and two uncles. World War II starts while Maya and Bailey are in San Francisco, and their mother marries Daddy Clidell, who is the first father Maya knows. They move to San Francisco proper, and the Baxters stay at the house in Oakland. Maya feels at home for the first time in San Francisco; she understands the spirit of the city, yet has not escaped racism there.
Maya has a hard time at one school, and then transfers to George Washington High School, which has only three black students. Her time there is only made worthwhile by Miss Kirwin, a excellent teacher who treats Maya without prejudice. She ends up being the only teacher that Maya remembers. Maya also begins to take dance and drama classes.
Maya learns to like Daddy Clidell, her mother's new husband; Daddy Clidell introduces her to colorful characters in the neighborhood, who tell her that blacks can win out over whites, which makes her feel gratified. They are criminals really, but in a society in which black people are always held back, this seems like a just revenge to Maya and many others.
Maya takes the train down to Southern California to spend the summer with her father and her father's girlfriend, Dolores. Daddy Bailey decides to go to Mexico and take Maya, which makes Dolores jealous. They drive to a tiny mountain town, and go to a cantina where everyone knows Daddy Bailey. Maya has a good time there, but her father disappears; he finally makes his way back, very drunk, and falls asleep in the backseat of the car. Maya is determined not to spend the night in that town, so she decides to drive them down the mountain, though she does not know how to drive.
She drives the car down the mountain almost by the force of will alone. She gets to the border, but runs into the car in front of her; she wakes her father and he simply patches things up and drives them home. Maya is hurt that he doesn't mention her achievement of driving down the mountain; the rest of the drive home is silent and uncomfortable.
They finally reach home, and Dolores and Daddy Bailey have an argument; she says she wants to marry him, but dislikes Maya and doesn't want her around. He yells at her and storms out. Maya feels sorry for her, and decides to talk to her. Dolores is upset and insults Maya's mother, and Maya slaps her; Dolores cuts Maya somehow, and Maya has to run away to protect herself. Her father finds her and drives her away to a friend who is a nurse. Maya feels that her father would prefer it if she disappears after this, and runs away downtown.
Maya is homeless, and decides to spend the evening in a junkyard car. She is found by a bunch of kids who live in the junkyard; they share everything among the group, and Maya ends up living there among the kids for a month. Then she decides she wants to go home and her mom buys her a ticket; Maya arrives home in San Francisco, her mother having no idea of Maya's adventures during the summer.
Maya comes back, feeling much older, and begins to lose interest in a lot of things. When Bailey gets home a few hours after his curfew, there is a bust-up and Bailey decides to leave home; Maya is sad, of course, but finds that Bailey is stubbornly convinced that he is old enough to strike it out on his own.
Maya decides that she has to get a job; she decides she can probably get a job on the streetcars, and becomes obsessed with the idea. Maya visits the streetcar company's office frequently, over a number of weeks, most times facing the same racist refusal; finally, she is hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. The job helps her to feel independent, and when she does go back to school, she can't relate to the other pupils; she has seen and done too much to have anything in common with them.
Because of her awkward body, Maya begins to think she is a lesbian, though she doesn't know what a lesbian really is. She turns to her mother to convince her that she is normal, but Maya does not feel secure after her mother's assurances. She decides to get a boyfriend, so she asks a good-looking neighbor boy to have sex with her, and they do. There is no pleasure or mystery in the experience, and it doesn't settle her mind either. But, a few weeks later, she finds out that she is pregnant.