Maya (Marguerite), the child narrator, is in the children's section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, where she must recite a poem for Easter Sunday. She is dressed in a lavender taffeta dress, which has been "cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway." She cannot remember the rehearsed poem, which causes the entire children's section to "wiggle and giggle over her well-known forgetfulness."
While the lavender dress was being made for her, Maya had indulged in fantasies about being a white girl with long blond hair and light blue eyes; but on Easter morning when it is time to wear the dress, all her dreams disappear, and she is a self-described as a "too-big Negro girl with nappy black hair, broad feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil."
Maya slips out of the church to go to the toilet but is tripped. She wets herself. Amazingly, she laughs at the situation.
The foreword serves as an introduction. Marguerite (Maya) Angelou, the central character and narrator of the book, is presented. The central theme is also introduced, for throughout the book, Maya will recall her childhood trials and tribulations and reflect on how they have helped her to develop.
Maya views herself as ugly simply because she is black. She tries to hide her black legs by greasing them with Vaseline and dusting red clay on them. She also fantasizes about herself. She sometimes imagines being a white girl with long blond hair and blue eyes. To Maya, this image was "everybody's dream of what was right with the world."
The church incident presented in the foreword highlights Maya's main concern as a child: she is made to feel like a second-class human being. She is in the children's section at church, where the others laugh at her and make her feel awkward. She is wearing a faded throwaway dress; although it has been made to fit her, it does nothing to hide her large size. When she leaves to go to the bathroom, someone trips her out of meanness; as a result, she wets herself. Amazingly, she is able to laugh at the incident; and the laugh is sweet release for the girl in the purple dress.
By the end of the foreword, a basic picture of Maya as a likable human being is emerging. She is a gentle, rolling girl whose life has a rhythm of its own. She is good-natured, even in her self-deprecation. She is a narrator worth listening to.