The novel primarily concerns itself with the author, Maya Angelou’s, early life in 1930s southern America. After the divorce of their parents, she and her brother, Bailey, are relocated to Stamps in Arkansas in order to live with their grandmother, Annie. Annie runs a shop, the only one, in Stamps’ black section.
Maya finds it initially difficult to come to terms with the treatment they received from their parents, feeling rejected and uncared for ultimately. Self doubt riddles her early life and she finds herself constantly comparing her life, appearance, and worth to others, ranging from her looks when compared to white girls and her worth to other black youth.
Being raised in the south, Maya must face the torments of racism full on, from more ignorable slights and uncouth comments to lynch mobs. Whilst in Stamps aged eight, her father unexpectedly turns up and takes her and Bailey to live with their mother in Missouri. Their mother, Vivian, is quite unlike young Maya in that she uses her appearance to her advantage in parlours and so forth.
However, whilst living with Vivian, Mr. Freeman, Vivian’s boyfriend, molests and later rapes Maya. Mr. Freeman is taken to court over the offence and is murdered sometime later. Maya is then further plagued by doubts and insecurities when she must hold the weight of such traumatic harassment and the concept that she chased Freeman’s death by not testifying against him for molestation before the rape.
She falls mute and only speaks to Bailey. Vivian and the rest of that portion of the family accept her silence and feel it is trauma from the assault, however their tempers run short and they soon feel as if Maya’s silence is simple disrespect targeted at them.
It doesn’t take long before Maya and Bailey are sent back to live in Stamps to live with Annie again. Annie is the one individual who manages to make Maya speak to others again when she introduces her to Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who insists that she read and take an interest in the great works of literature, out loud especially. Flowers’ gifts of poetry books gives her the confidence and the passion to finally speak again.
Maya, now instilled with more self belief, finds herself observing the community of Stamps. She notes particularly the vigour with which the community listen and support Joe Louis, a boxer of whom the community desperately wants to see fight valiantly against his white opponent. However, with this growing awareness, Maya also finds herself more and more affected by the racism of their southern setting.
Maya is insulted by many, including her dentist, for the colour of her skin and Bailey, also growing more observant of these matters, finds the final straw when he witnesses a black man’s corpse looked upon with joy by a white man. Annie, aware of these pressures and the effects of these sights, saves up some money in order to finance a trip to California to see Vivian, who now lives there.
When Maya is thirteen, the whole group move to live in Los Angeles with Vivian, later moving to Oakland. Then, when Vivian marries Daddy Clidell, they all move again, this time to San Francisco. Maya likes this arrangement and likes the city considerably.
However, Maya is forced to spend a summer with her father in Los Angeles. This does not end well when her father’s new girlfriend, Delores, slices her in a row, forcing Maya to run away and live with a group of homeless folk before returning to San Francisco.
All of these events and her blooming independence cause her to become the first black streetcar conductor when she is only fifteen. She then becomes pregnant but decides it is best to hide this development from her mother and step-father until she graduates.
Where after she births her baby boy and must then tread on to the next stages of life, where the independence that she has fostered within herself combined with the intense desire to stand up for belief and justice will be used to raise her child.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a true story about the author’s hard life during the 1960’s, a time in which black people are seen as inferior in many different aspects by society.