Free Study Guide for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: Book Summary

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The protagonist of the novel is Maya. As a young child, she is sent to live with her grandmother because her parents are getting a divorce. Since she does not hear from her mother or father for a long time, she thinks they are dead. When they reappear in her life, she does not bond with them. As a result, through most of her childhood and youth, she never feels like she belongs to anyone or anything. Her emotional isolation is intensified by the fact that she is raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight.


As a coming-of-age story, Maya’s antagonist is the difficulty of growing up, which is complicated by being abandoned by her parents, by being a black female in wartime America, and by being raped at the age of eight.


The climax of the story occurs when Maya runs away from home and learns that she is control of her own life. Fortunately, she makes the wise decision to return to her mother in San Francisco rather than continuing her communal existence amongst the runaways in the junkyard. She also wisely returns to high school and finishes, even though Vivian encourages her to quit and even though she is eight months pregnant at the time of graduation. Her coming-of-age reaches another peak when she questions her sexuality and seeks to overcome what she fears is lesbianism. She invites a neighborhood boy to have sex with her, which leads to pregnancy. The birth of her son turns out to be the highpoint of her life.


The story ends as a comedy. Despite all the things going against her, Maya matures, graduates from high school, has a healthy son, and delights in motherhood, which makes her feel that she truly belongs and is needed for the first time in her life.


Maya and Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Momma Henderson, and their Uncle Willie in Stamps, Arkansas. Momma is a storekeeper with a fervent and fundamental fear of God, and Uncle Willie is a paralyzed disciplinarian. As black people, they live under the threat of racism from the Klan and from ignorant "powhitetrash."

Maya and Bailey are shocked to learn that their parents are alive, for they had thought themselves orphaned. When their father comes to visit them in Stamps, he takes Maya and Bailey back with him to St. Louis. There he gives them to their mother, whom the children judge to be beautiful, and leaves. Their mother lives with her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman; but she is a free-spirited gambler, who often fails to come home at night.

Maya’s innocence is shattered when, at the age of eight, Mr. Freeman rapes her. In retaliation, Maya’s uncles murder him. Maya then retreats inside herself, refusing to speak to anyone but her brother. Her mother, unable to cope with her emotionally damaged child, sends the children back to Stamps to live with Momma. Maya takes a job as a maid at a white lady’s house but rebels against her employer’s racist insensitivity and gets herself fired.

Maya’s youth is not easy, for she learns about racism at an early age. A school administrator makes her realize that whites are expected to be scientists and doctors, but blacks are not expected be anything but athletes or servants. When she has a bad toothache, she finds out that the only dentist in Stamps, who is white, refuses to treat her. He says that he would rather put his hand in the mouth of a dog than the mouth of a "nigger." She is horrified when Bailey is locked up with a corpse by a malicious white man playing a joke. In the end, Momma realizes it is better for her grandchildren to leave Stamps and the threat of prejudice and racism that exists there. She makes sacrifices and saves her money in order to take Maya and Bailey to California to be with their mother.

Bailey is delighted to be back with his Mother Dear, and Maya adjusts to life in California. When Vivian marries a man named Daddy Clidell, Maya is relieved to find that he is a good man who acts as the first father figure in Maya’s life. Daddy Bailey is certainly not a true father to her. When Maya goes to stay with him, he pits his own young girlfriend, Dolores, against his daughter. To make Dolores jealous, he takes Maya with him to Mexico, where he gets drunk and passes out in the car. Not wanting to sleep in the car, the fifteen-year-old Maya attempts to drive, even though she does not know how, and winds up hitting another car.

When they return from Mexico, Dolores is furious. When she accuses Maya of coming between her and Bailey, he simply laughs and ignores her. She then turns her rage on Maya and winds up stabbing her with a pair of scissors. The attack causes Maya to again think about her painful past. Feeling she can trust no one, she decides to run away from home. She spends her first night in a junkyard. The next morning she finds that a group of runaways lie in the junkyard. She stays with them for a month, learning to dance, swear, and take care of herself. The experience gives her a sense of belonging and self-confidence. In the end, she decides it is best for her to return to her mother in San Francisco.

At her mother’s house, Maya realizes how much she has changed. The city has lost its charm for her, and adults no longer intimidate her. She finally sees Vivian for what she is and even notices that Bailey is not as perfect as she previously thought. Still, when Bailey moves away, taking a job with the railroad, Maya is miserable. To occupy herself, she fights for and wins a job as a streetcar conductor. She is the first black female ever to be hired.

When Maya returns to school in the fall, she realizes how much she has matured. She no longer fits in with her peers. As a result, she begins to skip school. When Vivian suggests that she just quit school, Maya comes to the realization that she is at the point in her life when she is in control of her success or her failure. As a result, she decides to stay in school, wanting more for her life than being a maid. Maya also becomes aware of her sexuality. When she questions if she might be a lesbian, she decides to prove she is not by having sex with a neighborhood boy. Unfortunately, Maya soon learns that she is pregnant.

In spite of the fact that she is eight months pregnant, Maya graduates from high school. Shortly afterwards, she gives birth to a son, who is the joy of her life. For the first time ever, Maya feels connected and needed.

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Free BookNotes
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