Julian, a recent college graduate, has returned home to the South live with his mother while he attempts to launch a career as a writer. At the behest of her doctor, Julian’s Mother attends a weekly exercise class to manage her blood pressure. Julian reluctantly agrees to accompany his mother to her classes, as she has been afraid to ride the bus alone at night since they were racially integrated.
As the pair begins to embark on one such trip, Julian’s Mother, after a round of debating, decides to wear an expensive purple hat she recently bought. While they walk to the bus stop, they discuss the social changes taking place in the South and their family’s history. Julian and Julian’s mother are descendants of an aristocratic family – Julian’s great-grandfather was the governor of the state and owned a plantation with two hundred slaves. Julian’s regal and sordid family history stands in sharp relief to his own life—he was raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood.
Julian and his mother finally board the bus and she begins to strike up conversation with The Woman with the Protruding Teeth and The Woman with the Red and White Sandals, fellow white passengers, all lamenting integration and the death of their beloved Southern tradition. Julian’s anger at his mother’s racism begins to boil and he desires, with a degree of vindictiveness, to teach her a lesson. At the next stop, The Well-Dressed Black Man enters the bus. Julian leaves his mother to sit with him, hoping to show her that black and white people can enjoy each other’s company. To Julian’s dismay, The Well-Dressed Black Man, wanting to read his newspaper in peace, is annoyed by the overture. Nevertheless, Julian’s Mother becomes visibly angry.
At the following stop, a dapper black boy and his mother, Carver and Carver’s Mother, board the bus, taking seats next to Julian’s Mother and Julian, respectively. Julian notices that Carver’s Mother is wearing a hat identical to Julian’s Mother’s. Julian’s Mother is delighted to sit with Carver, believing all children to be unbearably cute, regardless of race. As Carver begins to play with Julian’s Mother, Carver’s Mother scolds him, she too becoming increasing angered. As the bus stops and all four prepare to disembark, Julian has a fearful premonition. He knows that his mother is fond of giving coins to cute children and he worries how the gift will be perceived.
After exiting the bus, Julian’s Mother reaches into her purse to find a nickel, but can only find a penny. When she gives Carver the penny, Carver’s Mother strikes Julian’s Mother with her purse and walks away. Julian approaches his fallen mother and begins to browbeat her for not understanding the new spirit of racial equality and how her gesture might be understood as condescending. Following Julian’s rant, Julian’s Mother starts to suffer an apparent stroke. Seeing this grotesque image of his mother, Julian cries for help, overcome with guilt.