Brown Girl Dreaming follows the childhood of the author, Jacqueline Woodson, from her birth to around age ten. Jacqueline is born in Ohio, the youngest child of three, in 1963, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Jacqueline and her family are African-American. Her father, Jack, is from Ohio, and her Mama is from South Carolina. Prior to Jacqueline’s birth and the birth of her sister Odella, Mama lost her brother, Odell.
Mama and Jack fight often, eventually causing Mama flee to the home of her parents, MaryAnn and Gunnar, in Greenville, South Carolina with Jacqueline, Odella, and their older brother Hope. Eventually, however, Jack comes and begs for Mama’s forgiveness, and Mama and the children return to Ohio. After a second try, however, the couple fights again, and Mama leaves Jack for good, taking the children back with her to Greenville.
The children adjust to life in South Carolina. They enjoy spending time with their grandparents, and become so close with Gunnar that they start calling him “Daddy.” Gunnar works in a printing press and gardens on the side. Maryann takes up “daywork” (housekeeping for white families) in order to make ends meet. Jacqueline enjoys South Carolina and spending time with her grandparents. Hope, on the other hand, has difficulty adjusting to the new climate and life without his father. Mama also seems discontent in Greenville, as most of her friends have moved elsewhere.
At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement touches their lives more and more. Jacqueline takes in all the ways that she and her family are discriminated against in South Carolina, from Gunnar’s coworkers disrespecting him to segregated buses. In Greenville the children observe sit-ins in Greenville firsthand.
Mama takes a trip to New York City, leaving Jacqueline and her siblings with their grandparents. After a while, Mama returns to Greenville and informs the children and Maryann and Gunnar that she will be moving to New York and taking the children with her, much to Maryann’s dismay. The family spends the end of the summer together. Concerningly, Gunnar, a lifelong smoker, develops a persistent cough. Mama leaves for New York again so that she can find a job and an apartment before bringing the children there.
With Mama gone, Maryann, a devotedly religious woman, encourages the children to participate more actively as Jehovah’s Witnesses, spending every weekday afternoon except Friday at Bible study. Gunnar’s cough worsens so much he begins to miss work. Eventually, Mama sends a letter telling them that she will soon be back to take them to New York, and also that she is pregnant. At last, Mama arrives back in Greenville with the new baby, a boy named Roman. The family bids Maryann and Gunnar goodbye and travels together to New York City.
The family moves into a first apartment, but quickly moves out because it is decrepit and uninhabitable. They then move into the apartment below Mama’s sister Kay’s apartment. Initially, Jacqueline does not like New York City, and misses Greenville. Not long after the family moves in, Kay dies. The family moves again, to a place on Madison Street.
Jacqueline and Odella go to the same school and all the children attend services at the local Kingdom Hall (the name of the building where Jehovah’s Witnesses attend services). Odella shines as a student in their new school, while Jacqueline has difficulties reading, but loves to make up stories.
Jacqueline’s Uncle Robert moves to New York City, and spends lots of time with the children. Jacqueline begins to feel more at home in New York, but still misses her maternal grandparents.
Roman gets lead poisoning from eating the paint off the walls at the apartment, and so must stay in the hospital for an extended period of time. Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope go to Greenville for the summer, and Mama stays to take care of Roman. Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope find that Gunnar is even sicker than before. At the end of the summer, the children return New York, where Roman is still under hospital care.
At last, Roman is allowed to come home. For the last few weeks of the summer, Jacqueline plays with her new best friend, Maria. Maria’s family is from Puerto Rico, and she lives on the same street as Jacqueline. During the school year, Jacqueline continues to engage with writing and storytelling, although writing is difficult for her. She finds books and poems that inspire her, and decides she wants to be a writer.
The next summer the children again return to Greenville, including Roman. Gunnar is gravely ill, and Jacqueline helps attend to his needs. In Greenville, despite the success of the Civil Rights Movement, Jacqueline senses that racial segregation still exists in practice, if illegally.
At the end of the summer, Robert takes the children back to New York City. At school that fall, Jacqueline reads more and makes her first book. A new girl named Diana moves in next door, and becomes friends with Maria and Jacqueline. Jacqueline gets jealous, but is soothed when, at Maria’s brother’s baptism, Maria refers to her as family.
One day, Mama gets a call that Robert is in prison. When Robert gets moved to a prison upstate, the family goes to visit him. In the spring, Maryann informs the family that Gunnar is dying and they all fly to Greenville to say goodbye and attend the funeral.
After Gunnar’s death, MaryAnn moves to Brooklyn to live with the family. Jacqueline resumes her storytelling hobby, attends school, and continues playing with Maria. Robert is released from prison and has converted to Islam. The Black Power Movement gains momentum, and Jacqueline and Maria imitate the activists in the movement, learning about it from Mama, Robert, and the television. Jacqueline’s teacher tells Jacqueline she is a writer, validating her dreams. The memoir ends with two poems in which Jacqueline discusses her beliefs and her imaginative writing philosophy, showing how, over the course of the memoir, Jacqueline has developed a sense of her gift for storytelling and of herself.