88 pages 2 hours read

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1969

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a groundbreaking work in Black women’s writing, is an autobiography depicting the childhood and adolescence of American writer Maya Angelou. It is the first volume of Angelou’s seven-volume autobiography. The book was nominated for a 1970 National Book Award, and in 1979, it was adapted into a film.

Plot Summary

The memoir opens in 1931 when a three-year-old Maya Johnson arrives in Stamps, Arkansas, along with her four-year-old brother Bailey. Their parents, recently divorced, sent the siblings to the small Southern town to live with their grandmother, Momma Henderson. Momma owns a General Store in the Black part of Stamps and runs it with the help of her disabled son, Uncle Willie. From an early age, Maya struggles with the feelings of self-doubt and abandonment and finds solace in books and her brother’s company. More mischievous than his sister, Bailey fills their time with new adventures and becomes Maya’s best friend and confidante.

The town of Stamps is highly segregated, and Maya has minimal contact with the white population, but nevertheless, she regularly witnesses instances of racism. When she watches Momma Henderson hide Uncle Willie from the Ku Klux Klan and sees the white neighborhood girls talk down to her grandmother, Maya is overwhelmed with a strong sense of injustice.

Maya and Bailey adjust to their life in Stamps, and Momma Henderson becomes a strong role model for the siblings. One day, without warning, their father arrives in Stamps, and after spending some time in the town, takes the children to St. Louis to live with their mother, Vivian Baxter. She works at gambling parlors and doesn’t spend much time with Maya and Bailey, but both children admire her glamorous lifestyle, which is very different from Momma Henderson’s modest, conservative behavior. When Maya is eight years old, Vivian’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually abuses and rapes Maya. He threatens to kill Bailey if the girl tells anyone, so she keeps silent, but when her mother eventually finds out, Mr. Freeman is taken to court. Although he is found guilty of the crime, his lawyer manages to get him released the very same day, but soon afterward, Mr. Freeman is murdered. Overwhelmed with the feelings of shock and guilt, Maya becomes withdrawn and stops talking, and Vivian sends the children back to Stamps.

Under the care of her grandmother, Maya slowly recovers. The girl befriends Mrs. Flowers, an educated woman who rekindles Maya’s love for books. Maya begins to enjoy her schoolwork and spends all her free time reading. Maya sheds some of her insecurities and makes a new friend, a girl named Louise, who helps her navigate her first romances and life at school. When Maya’s eighth-grade graduation comes, she is proud of her academic achievements and hopeful about her future.

Worried about the racial intolerance of Stamps, Momma Henderson takes the children back to California. Maya is thirteen when she and Bailey move to San Francisco to live with their mother, who has remarried. They grow fond of their new stepfather, Daddy Clidell, and admire their mother’s free spirit. With the beginning of World War II, the social fabric of San Francisco begins to alter, and in this atmosphere of change, Maya finally begins to feel at home. Her birth father, Bailey Senior, invites Maya to spend summer with him in southern California. Soon after joining him and his girlfriend Dolores in their trailer park, Maya realizes that he is nothing like the father from her fantasies. When during a brawl, Dolores physically attacks Maya, the girl leaves and finds herself homeless. She wonders into a junkyard where she meets a group of homeless teenagers and joins them for a while, working and living alongside them. Their unquestioning acceptance boosts Maya’s self-esteem, and the exposure to different people and experiences profoundly changes her thinking.

Upon her return to San Francisco, Maya finds out that she has grown apart from her brother. She decides to get a job as a streetcar operator. There is a policy forbidding Black people from having such jobs, but Maya perseveres and becomes the first female Black streetcar operator in San Francisco. As she starts her senior year of high school, she becomes pregnant. Maya follows Bailey’s advice and doesn’t tell her mother and stepfather until after her graduation. Three weeks later, she gives birth to a son, marking her passage from adolescence into adulthood. 

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