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At the age of three, Maya and her brother Bailey, who is four, are shipped off to live with their paternal grandmother, Momma Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas, for their parents are getting a divorce. Momma Henderson lives with Uncle Willie in the rear of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, an establishment which serves cotton pickers and sawmen. The store serves as the center of activity in the town.
Maya and Bailey are expected to work in the store. They must get up at dawn to wait on customers who stop on their way to work. Many of the customers will return to the store in the evening after their work is done. For Maya and Bailey, the store is their whole life. It is also their teacher, for they learn some valuable lessons from their encounters and interactions with different people.
Chapter 1 introduces Maya’s early life, her brother Bailey, her grandmother Momma Henderson, and her Uncle Willie. Because their parents are getting divorced, Maya and Bailey are sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother. The move away from her parents and to a new place accounts for some of Maya’s sense of not belonging. She also has little chance to interact with other children, for she is expected to work in the general store that her grandmother runs.
Maya’s grandmother, Momma Henderson, is a resourceful woman. She has transformed her place of business from a lunch counter to a general merchandise store, which serves everyone in town. Many of her customers are laborers, such as cotton pickers, who work
extremely hard for very little pay. When they come into the store in the early morning hours, they are smiling and hopeful; when they return in the evening, they appear the be defeated souls. Even as a child, Maya realizes their level of poverty and the injustice of their hard work. As a result, the adult Maya rages against the stereotype of happy, song-singing cotton pickers.