I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Plot Summary
Marguerite, or Maya, Johnson is a young black girl growing up in the racist town of Stamps, Arkansas. She and her brother Bailey (her only friend in the world) were sent to Arkansas by their parents when she was three and he four: they now live with their father's mother, Momma. Momma is strictly religious, and she owns a general store where the children are expected to work. They are both very intelligent, and spend much of their time reading because there is little else to do in Stamps. Maya does not understand why white people treat black people so terribly. In fact, she does not understand much of the adult world, though she tries hard to do so. She is merely expected to sit still and keep her mouth shut. Then their father arrives suddenly, and takes them to St. Louis to stay with their mother. He is handsome and interesting, but he is vain and does not really seem to care for his children. In St. Louis, the children are looked after by their mother's family and their mother herself-a beautiful, laughing movie star type of woman. Her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, avoids contact with the children for the most part, until he begins to molest, and finally rapes, Maya. Soon after he is discovered, he is mysteriously killed, probably by Mother's family. Maya believes it is all her fault, and stops talking for a long time. She and her brother are sent back to Stamps, where Maya meets Mrs. Flowers, who teaches her that speech and writing are beautiful and important.
Maya's life continues with a series of episodes that affect her in different ways-some positive, some negative-but all of them teach her something. She is sent to learn manners in a white woman's house at ten years old. She has her first real run-in with prejudice, and decides that she will not accept it. She and Bailey dream of their mother, and Maya longs to get away from Stamps. She watches her black neighbors nearly kill themselves with work, then look to religion for relief-or, she sometimes thinks, as an escape. She makes her first friend, and gets interested in boys-though not seriously. Bailey, a year older, gets initiated into sex by a fourteen-year-old, who then leaves town, breaking his heart. Maya hears a ghost story from a neighbor and is terrified, then learns her grandmother's power when Momma is able to make everyone in the house, including Maya, feel better. Maya attends her eighth grade graduation, at first proud of herself, but then disappointed when a white guest speaker tells the crowd that they can only be good at sports, not academics. Still, even after that depressing speech, the crowd sings together, and Maya feels proud again, of herself and her people. Still, she sees that racism is not so simply overcome. When she has two cavities, her mother tries to take her to a white dentist, who refuses to help her. All her grandmother can do is force him to give her money, when Maya would like Momma to run him out of town. Soon after, Momma decides that Maya and Bailey have to go to California to be with their parents. Maya doesn't know why, but she thinks it's because Bailey has seen, up close, a dead black man and a white man who is happy to see the man dead. Maya thinks Momma is afraid for her grandson, who is becoming a man.
In California, Maya at first lives with her grandmother, then her mother. She and Bailey love Mother very deeply: she is beautiful, fun-loving, and she loves them. She is strong and kind, and marries an equally strong and kind man, Daddy Clidell, who is Maya's first real father. In San Francisco during the war, Maya witnesses racism against blacks and Japanese people. She does well in school and gets involved with dance and theatre. She meets fun-loving con artists. She spends the summer with her father and his girlfriend, who is not much older than Maya herself. The two women do not get along. Her father takes her to Mexico for a night, and Maya learns that he has a mistress there. Her father gets so drunk Maya has to drive him home. She has never driven before and is terrified, but once it is over, she feels proud. She gets into a fight with her father's girlfriend and decides to leave. She lives in a junkyard with a group of teenagers for a month. There, she learns about friendship and tolerance. Back in San Francisco, she decides to work as a streetcar conductor, though black people are not allowed to do this. She persists until they finally hire her. She works for a semester and then goes back to school. Meanwhile, Bailey and Mother have been fighting so much that Bailey finally leaves home and gets a job on a railroad train. Maya is disappointed in him. She reads some lesbian literature and, not understanding her developing body and mind, thinks she is a lesbian. She decides to find a boyfriend. She approaches a popular boy and asks him to have sex with her. He agrees and the experience is disappointing-almost boring-for Maya. She forgets him, and three weeks later finds she is pregnant. She hides it from her mother and stepfather for 8 months, and when she finally tells them they are at first angry but then accept it. She has the baby, and is afraid of hurting it for a while, but soon realizes that as long as she has good intentions, her instinct will help her care for it.