As a child Meridian mostly feels guilt—guilt at having been part of her mother's inability to live her life as she wanted once she became saddled with marriage and motherhood. So when Meridian finds herself married with an unwanted baby at 17 years of age, she enters a period of despair. That despair is lifted only when she gives up her child and becomes part of the civil rights movement, which allows her the opportunity to attend college. Meridian works tirelessly throughout her young adulthood to make a difference in the lives of African Americans living disenfranchised lives in small Southern towns. She lives in service to the community as she finally heals her own inner wounds. Along the way, she facilitates the healing of Truman Held and Lynne Rabinowitz, who suffer from their own guilt and shame.
When readers first meet Truman Held, he is a dashing young African American very aware of his effect on people. He dresses at times like an Ethiopian prince, speaks in French often, and feels powerful most of the time. He thinks he deserves his definition of a perfect woman and is especially drawn to white women. He discards Meridian's love for him callously. Instead, he chases after white exchange students at her college who work side-by-side with him and Meridian in the Atlanta Movement. Truman unknowingly gets Meridian pregnant the one time they have sex. She aborts his baby and turns her heart away from his permanently. However, she remains available to him as a friend, and he goes to her often. He desperately needs her approval, and he gradually comes to highly value her integrity. Once he is able to emulate that to some degree, he will be able to return to his white wife, Lynne. He has treated Lynne horribly, but now he provides for her and wishes to become her friend.
All Lynne wants is to feel accepted and loved. When her Jewish parents reject her, saying she is "dead to them" because of her relationship with Truman, she clings to him for love and support. However, Truman is fickle about women and comes to see Lynne's whiteness as a big problem for him. Truman's friend Tommy Olds rapes Lynne to prove his hatred of whites and desire to hurt and control all whites. But Truman does nothing about it. So Lynne then turns to other African Americans, wanting desperately for them to love rather than hate her. When she unintentionally gets pregnant with Truman's baby, she leaves him and returns to New York to raise the child—a girl named Camara—on welfare. Lynne begins a horrible downward spiral that leads her to the brink of despair after the murder of her daughter. Meridian tries to help Lynne, as she tries to help Truman. But the only thing that saves Lynne is Truman's decision to return to her, to love and provide for her, if not to desire her.