It is the dead of winter in Flint, Michigan, and the Watson family is braving the cold as well as they can. They have to wear scarves and gloves even inside their house, and going outside is nearly unbearable. Wilona, the mother, was not born in Flint; she was born down south in Alabama and moved up to Michigan to be with her husband, Daniel. Naturally, she does not approve of the cold.
There are three Watson children: the eldest is Byron, who is thirteen and is basically a juvenile delinquent, convinced that he is too "cool" for everything. In the middle is Kenny, the protagonist, who is ten. The youngest child is Joetta, or Joey, who is five. Kenny calls the family the Weird Watsons.
While the family is watching the weather forecast on TV, Momma (Wilona) gets upset about the cold and the subject of Moses Henderson comes up. Dad (Daniel) is quite the storyteller, so he explains to the children that they came really close to having a clown named "Hambone" Henderson for a father; this man was allegedly a former beau of Momma's. Dad gave him the nickname Hambone because his head was shaped like one; the small show that Dad puts on makes everybody crack up about Hambone.
Momma tries to hide a laugh; she has a habit of putting her hand over her mouth whenever she is going to smile in order to cover a big gap in her teeth. She insists that Birmingham is a good place, not only because it is warm. Dad disagrees, and refers to the "Coloreds Only" bathrooms and other instances of segregation. The discussion ends, and the Watsons start up their old car (which they call the Brown Bomber) so that they can travel to their Aunt Cydney's house and spend the night in a warmer place.
The boys go outside to scrape ice off the car windows, and Byron begins to mess with Kenny, telling his younger brother that he is going to teach him how to survive a blizzard. Byron had begun this behavior this the previous night, teaming up with Buphead, his partner in crime. They swung Kenny around and threw him in the air, simulating high blizzard winds. They also had Kenny spin around and try to keep his balance before pushing him into a snow bank. They told him the most important thing for surviving a blizzard was covering his face, but then threw snow in his face when he was not paying attention and told him he had failed.
Kenny refuses to fall for this trick again and ignores Byron, continuing to scrape ice off the car. In a few minutes, however, Kenny realizes that Byron frozen his lips to the side view mirror after kissing his reflection. Dad finds the situation hysterical, but Momma is worried, and when she is worried she begins to speak with a Southern accent. Joey is worried too, and compares Byron's situation to the story of Narcissus (she calls him Nar-sissy) who stared at himself for so long he forgot to eat and starved to death.
The Watsons try to pour hot water to melt the ice, but this measure just makes Byron's problem worse. Eventually, Momma distracts Byron and just yanks him off. With the crisis solved, the family heads to Aunt Cydney's house.
Kenny goes to school at Clark elementary, where Larry Dunn is the big bully who lords over everyone from kindergarten to fourth grade. The real god of the school, though, is Byron; he is in the sixth grade still, because he flunked a grade at least once. Having Byron as a big brother does not exempt Kenny from bullying, but it does spare him from some of the worst evils that Larry Dunn could pull.
Kenny says he gets teased because there are two things wrong with him: the first issue is that he is extremely smart, so all the teachers love him and treat him differently. (When he was in second grade, a teacher once had him read passages of Langston Hughes's work to Byron's fifth grade class.) The second issue is Kenny's lazy eye. However, Byron taught him a way to avoid having people look at his eye: Kenny just has to look at people sideways when they talk to him.
Indeed, Kenny knows that if it were not for Byron he would get teased a lot more. He is worried about what will happen if Byron ever does get out of sixth grade and move to junior high school, at least before Kenny catches up. He thinks about the worst times, when Byron and Buphead skip school and Kenny has to take the bus alone. Byron would say "Give my regards to Clark, Poindexter," and then walk away; this action was a cue for the other kids to make fun of Kenny.
One day, though, Byron skips school and the bus picks up two new boys with Southern accents and raggedy, tattered clothes. Larry Dunn and the other kids on the bus start making fun of them, but the bus driver comes between the kids Kenny knows and the new arrivals. After the two new kids sit down next to him, Kenny realizes that he himself will not be mocked while these boys are present; he thinks of them as his "saver" from God.
Like most traditional narratives, The Watsons Go to Birmingham features a first chapter that serves as an introduction to the main characters. This novel is primarily about a family, the Watsons, so even though this story is told from Kenny's perspective, the other members of his family are just as important to the narrative as he is. Their banter at the television in the first chapter and their reaction to Byron's sticky situation serve as a good introduction to the family dynamic.
Byron is immediately set up as Kenny's "foil," a character who has exact opposite traits that accentuate certain characteristics of the protagonist. Kenny is a star student, while Byron has apparently flunked two grades. Kenny is careful, caring, and cautious, while Byron makes impulsive decisions and cares more about being cool than about being a good brother. Byron rules the school, while Kenny either flies under the radar or is made fun of for his wits and his lazy eye. By being such a juvenile troublemaker, Byron brings out Kenny's virtues.
The parents' relationship is set up clearly, too. Though readers do not know all the details of their marriage, it is clear that Wilona must love Daniel a lot, since she made the decision to leave her life in Birmingham behind and move up to the cold North to be with him. The love that both have for their children is shown in these chapters, especially through their concern when Byron gets his lips stuck on the car mirror. The Watsons' close family bonds will undoubtedly prove to be an essential element of this story as it moves along.
At this point, the Watsons seem very much like a normal family; however, it is important to consider the time period in which they live. The Watsons are a black family living at the peak of the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, a time of great conflict over the segregation policies enacted against African Americans. In the North, the Watsons are mostly untouched by this hatred; however, Daniel briefly reminds Wilona that in the South, in Birmingham, discrimination is still alive and real.
Chapter 2 sets up Clark Elementary School as a microcosm of the society outside. Clark is all about the social ladder; Kenny is at the bottom, but is occasionally awarded privileges because his brother Byron is at the top. All choices and decisions are made in order to minimize being bullied and maximize one's reputation in the eyes of all the other students; teacher's pets (a group that includes the unwilling Kenny) are frowned upon. Even though the most important characters in this setting are children, class and status are just as important at Clark as they are in the outside, adult world.
In the first two chapters, Kenny begins to tell his story in a series of vignettes, or small accounts of events that fit together like a puzzle. This is a technique that authors use in order to paint a full picture of a character's (or in this case, a family's) life, proceeding by detailing experiences one by one. It is not until later in the novel that the story will break free of this vignette structure and move into a plot with chapters that flow logically together; for now, readers are simply invited to get to know the Watsons through Kenny's short accounts of their experiences.