It’s 1933, and the Logans are walking to class on their first day of school. Cassie tries to get her younger brother Little Man to walk faster, but he doesn’t want to stir up dust and get his clothes dirty. Little Man is somewhat excited by the prospect of school, since it’s his first year, but the rest of the Logan children are less than thrilled. Stacey, Cassie’s older brother, is especially grumpy about the fact that his mother will be the teacher in his seventh grade class.
Even though the Logan children argue with each other, it’s clear that they’re a tight-knit family. Cassie is making an effort to get her siblings to stay together, even when Little Man is lagging behind. That they don’t have a bus to take them to school hints at some of the other injustices and difficulties to come.
A long time ago, Cassie’s grandfather purchased 400 acres of land from Harlan Granger’s family, which allows the Logan family to make some extra money from farming cotton. However, 200 acres of the land have been mortgaged, and they must pay taxes on the other 200 acres. As a result, Papa has left to work on the railroad; Cassie’s grandma, Big Ma still has to work on the farm like a young woman; and the entire family pitches in so that they can afford the land—something that Papa emphasizes is very important and worth their sacrifices.
The land is important to Papa and to the other Logans because it represents their independence from the white landowners. As a result, they work as hard as they can to maintain their land, even when they have to make major sacrifices to do so. The land also represents family now because the entire family has taken on the burden of maintaining it.
The Logans meet up with Stacey’s friend, T.J. Avery, and his brother, Claude Avery. T.J. tells Stacey to cheer up, hinting that Stacey might be able to get some of the test answers from his mom. Stacey gets mad, saying that T.J. doesn’t know Mama, and T.J. changes the subject to a “burning” that occurred the previous night. He gets the attention of the Logan children, revealing—after much cajoling—that some white men almost burned a nearby family to death.
Stacey is indignant when T.J. brings up cheating because Stacey doesn’t believe in disrespecting his mother like that. The burning incident is the first major instance of racial violence in the book, and establishes the risks the Logans are taking when they support the boycott and why they have to be careful about how they go about resisting white oppression.
The Logans—other than Stacey—don’t like T.J. very much. He reveals that Cassie almost got him in trouble by telling his mother that he had gone to the dancing room in the Wallace store. He got out of it by blaming his brother, Claude, instead, and Claude took a beating for it. The Logans think this is a dirty stunt, but T.J. finds it funny.
The Logans find T.J.’s stunt distasteful because he allows his own brother to take the blame for him—something that the Logan children wouldn’t do because they care for each other and believe that family ties are important and worth defending.
Stacey tells everyone to get off the road quickly, and everyone except for Little Man scrambles up the bank and into the forest. Little Man is reluctant to scramble up the bank and get his clothes dirty, but when the school bus drives by and raises the red dust, Little Man ends up getting dirtier than the rest of them. Little Man indignantly demands to know where their bus is, but Stacey tells him that the black kids don’t get a bus.
Little Man is furious because the white bus driver didn’t even try to slow down or avoid the kids. He doesn’t understand why the white children get their own bus when he and his siblings have to walk an hour to school and back each day. Vehicles are one of the main ways in which whites and blacks are divided in the book—the ones who own cars are mostly white, and everyone else has to make do with wagons or walking.
A white boy named Jeremy approaches the group and greets Stacey shyly. There’s a bit of an awkward silence, and the conversation reveals that school has been in session for a month already for the white kids. Jeremy walks with the Logan children every morning, even though he gets ridiculed and beaten for associating with them. Eventually, they split as Jeremy goes to the white school with his sister Lillian Jean, who regards the Logans with disdain.
The fact that the white kids have already been in school for a month demonstrates one way in which their education is prioritized over the black kids’ education. Also, Jeremy’s family beats him for spending time with the Logans because they’re racist and don’t believe that black and white people should be friends.
The Logans continue on to the black school, which starts later in the year and gets out earlier because the black children have to help their families by working in the cotton fields. A lot of the older kids drop out of school entirely in order to help their parents work the fields. Cassie observes the students around her, who are wearing their Sunday best, even though all their clothes are full of patches, since no one can afford new clothes.
Black children have to conquer more obstacles in order to even attend school. First, they have to walk because there are no buses for them, and then they have to organize their school year around cotton picking season. Finally, it’s clear from Cassie’s description that most of the black students are quite poor as well.
Cassie heads into the fourth grade classroom, which the fourth graders currently share with the first graders because the first grade teacher is held up in Jackson for a few days. Miss Crocker, the fourth grade teacher announces that this year, all the students will get books. This is big news, since most of the students have never handled a book before, other than the family Bible. The Logans are lucky, though, because Mama owns several books. Still, Cassie is excited at the prospect of getting her own book. However, once Miss Crocker reveals the books, Cassie sees that they’re badly worn, and her excitement fades into disappointment.
The fact that Mama owns several books demonstrates the Logan family’s emphasis on storytelling and language, as well as their somewhat higher socioeconomic status relative to other blacks in the novel. They believe that having a mastery of words is important. However, one of the injustices of the school system is that even when the black children receive books to learn from, they’re already badly worn—the refuse deemed no longer fit for white students.
When it’s Little Man’s turn to take a book, he outrages the teacher by asking if he can get a cleaner copy. Miss Crocker accuses him of putting on airs, so Little Man takes his book and goes back to his seat. However, once he flips over the page and sees what’s written inside, he throws his book down and begins stomping on it. Cassie flips open her own copy and sees that there’s a record of who the book has been checked out to and what the condition of the book is. It turns out that the books are checked out to white children until the condition becomes “Very Poor,” at which point they’re given to black children, or “nigra” as it’s written in Cassie’s book.
Little Man’s reaction to the book shows that the Logans raise their children to take pride in who they are—it’s also the reason Cassie finds the term “nigra” offensive. Cassie also jumps to Little Man’s defense because he’s her younger brother and she wants to defend her family.
Cassie tries to explain to Miss Crocker that Little Man is upset because of the chart, but Miss Crocker remains unsympathetic. She just tells Cassie, “That’s what you are” when Cassie tells her about the “nigra” written in her book. Cassie rejects her book too, and she and Little Man both get whipped.
Cassie chooses to be punished with her little brother because she wants to stand up for him and for her own identity. However, Miss Crocker’s reaction to the term “nigra” just demonstrates how deeply the injustices have penetrated their society—even many of the black adults are upholding a structure that’s biased against them.
Cassie tries to tell her mother about the incident when class lets out, but Miss Crocker gets there first, and Cassie overhears their conversation. Mama doesn’t seem to be very upset at her children, however, which frustrates Miss Crocker. Mama then glues paper in the books to cover up the charts, telling Miss Crocker that maybe they shouldn’t just accept the way things are. Miss Crocker, however, disapproves of Mama and thinks of her as a radical. Mama glues paper over the charts in all the books in her seventh grade class.
Mama has her own quietly dignified way of dealing with racial injustices. She glues over the offensive panels in the books, even though Miss Crocker warns her that she’ll get in trouble for vandalizing school property. Though she doesn’t say so, it’s clear that Mama understands Cassie and Little Man’s reaction to the books.