Maya Angelou has reconstructed her personal history in this autobiographical tale whose protagonist is the child narrator, Maya. In reality, she becomes the collective consciousness of Angelou's past experiences.
As a character Maya has many obstacles to overcome, including her sense of abandonment when her parents send her away, her grandmother's rigid fundamentalism, the racism of Stamps, and poverty. In her childhood, her love of books and her devotion to her brother Bailey are the only sustaining things in her life.
Maya's sense of alienation is compounded when she is reunited with her father and then abandoned again. She is left with Vivian, her beautiful mother, who only makes Maya feel more awkward. Since Vivian has no parenting skills, she often leaves Maya in the care of her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, while she stays out all night gambling. When he makes sexual advances towards Maya, she misinterprets them as fatherly concern. In the end, Freeman loses control and rapes Maya when she is only eight years old. When Freeman is killed by her uncles, Maya feels guilty about his death, as well as ashamed over what has happened to her. Unfortunately, there is no loving figure in her life to help her understand what has happened and to free her from guilt and blame.
The tragedy of the rape has profound consequences for young Maya. She withdraws from all social contact, refusing to speak to anyone other than Bailey. Unable to cope with an emotionally bruised child, Vivian rejects her daughter for a second time and returns her to Stamps to live with Momma once again. Fortunately, Maya is rescued by the kindness of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who helps in her recovery and once more introduces her to the world of books; but Maya never feels that she belongs in Stamps.
When Momma decides that it is time for Maya to return to California, due to the racism of Stamps, Maya is almost numb. The fact that she has been constantly tossed back and forth has created in Maya a devastating sense of not belonging anywhere. In addition, the prejudice that she endures as a black and a female makes her feel that she has no worth or power.
When Maya arrives in California, she is shocked to find that Daddy Bailey is living with Dolores, a girl who is not much older than she. The two young women fight for the attention of Maya's father. Upset over the fact that Bailey took Maya with him to Mexico and left her behind, Dolores picks a fight with Maya and stabs her with a pair of scissors. The attack causes Maya to think about her painful past, and she decides to runaway before she is seriously injured again. She meets a group of runaways living in a junkyard and stays with them for more than a month. They accept Maya for who and what she is. For the first time in a long time, she gains some self-confidence and self-worth. Although she is happy in the runaway commune, she wants more for herself; therefore, she decides to return to Vivian.
Back in San Francisco, Maya realizes how much she has changed. She no longer sees Bailey as a perfect human being and realizes that adults have no real power over her. Even the city itself has lost its charm for Maya. When Bailey moves out to take a job with the railroad, Maya once again feels totally isolated. Wanting to do something with her life, she decides she wants to be a conductor on the San Francisco streetcar line. Vivian warns her that she will not be hired because she is black. Maya, however, is determined and doggedly pursues the position. In the end, she becomes the first black female to ever be hired. Once again, Maya feels that she has some worth.
When she returns to school in the fall, Maya has matured to the point that she no longer fits in with her peers. Feeling like she does not belong, she begins to skip school. When Vivian suggests that she simply quit school, Maya wakes up. She suddenly accepts that she is in control of her life and her destiny. As a result, she begins to apply herself in high school, determined to graduate.
As Maya goes through puberty, she becomes conscious of her appearance and her body. She worries about whether she is developing in the right way. Unfortunately, since she is not close to Vivian, there is no one to assure her, and she continues to have doubts. When she learns about lesbianism, she is worried that she might be one herself. To prove that she is not, she asks a neighborhood boy to have sex with her. Unfortunately, she gets pregnant. Maya, wanting to continue in school, hides the pregnancy from everyone. At graduation, she is eight months pregnant, and no one realizes it.
The birth of her son at the end of the novel finally gives Maya the connection she has wanted. Throughout the book, she has ached for a sense of belonging, but unfortunately, she only meets with rejection. She is jeered by her peers, taunted by the white race, sexually abused by a man who should have cared for her as his child, neglected by an egocentric father, and abandoned by her mother. In spite of the "masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power," Maya emerges as a whole person who adores the child she has produced.
As a narrator and as a character, Maya is compelling. Her voice is real and always changing; sometimes she is childlike and sometimes reflective. But she is always honest, frank, evocative, and fresh. Since she is able to expose her strengths and her weaknesses in the book, the reader associates with her. In the end, she becomes an unforgettable character.
Momma is a strong character, who lives by her fundamental religious beliefs. As a black woman in Stamps, she has incredible power. The owner of a successful business, she manages to have financial freedom. She even loans money to both white and black people during the Depression.
Momma has two sons. Uncle Willie, who has been paralyzed from a young age, lives with her in Stamps. Maya's father, Bailey, left Stamps long ago and married the beautiful, but wild, Vivian. The couple has two children, Maya and her older brother Bailey. When Vivian and Daddy Bailey divorce, Momma agrees to take the children. She is devoted to the two of them, even though she is not demonstrative with her love. When she feels it is dangerous for Maya and Bailey to stay in Stamps because of prejudice and persecution inflicted on the blacks, she saves her money and takes them back to their father in California. It is an act of sacrifice and love.
Through most of the book, Maya believes her grandmother is all powerful. When Momma goes in to confront the white dentist who refuses to treat Maya's rotten tooth, Maya imagines her as a superhero who will get the best of the evil man; however, when Momma succeeds only in extracting ten dollars from the dentist rather than in convincing him to treat her granddaughter, Maya begins to realize that she is not able to accomplish all things. She knows, however, that Momma is one of the most positive influences in her life.
Bailey is Maya's older brother, guide, confidante, and mentor. Through most of the book, she idolizes him, calling Bailey her "Kingdom Come." Maya keeps no secrets from her brother, whom she trusts completely. In return for her trust, Bailey serves as Maya's protector. When Maya is raped by Mr. Freeman, it is only Bailey that she tells. Bailey is so upset at the news that he actually cries. He then tells their uncles about what has happened. Mr. Freeman is later found beaten to death.
When Bailey is reunited with his mother, he is enamored with her. He thinks that she is the most beautiful and charming woman in the world. Even when Vivian refuses to be a mother to Maya and Bailey, he stands by her; and when he is away from her he is miserable. At the end of the book, Maya realizes that Bailey is caught in an "oedipal skein." When he is with Vivian, he constantly fights with her; but he cannot stay away.
Vivian, however, finally kicks him out when he takes up with a white prostitute. In the end, she helps Bailey to get a job with the railroad.
Maya's ever absent father is a tall, handsome man, who speaks proper English. He is a dietician for the navy and has also worked as a doorman, but the airs he puts on makes Maya think that he should live in a manor house with huge grounds and servants to wait on him. In actuality, Bailey is a vain, conceited man, whose selfishness is sometimes very detrimental to Maya and his son Bailey, Jr.
During the book, Daddy Bailey proves he is an immature and irresponsible man. He lives with his young girlfriend, who is not much older than Maya. He then pits the two women against one another. To make Dolores jealous, Daddy Bailey takes Maya to Mexico with him, saying it will give her a chance to practice her Spanish. While in Mexico, he crudely suggests to the border guard that he marry Maya. He also gets drunk and passes out in the back seat of the car, forcing Maya to drive when she does not know how. When Daddy Bailey and Maya return home, Dolores, out of jealousy and revenge, stabs Maya with a pair of scissors. Daddy Bailey, too proud to let anyone know what has happened, does not take Maya to a hospital for treatment; instead, he takes her to a neighbor's and dresses her wounds. His insensitivity to Maya is a main cause of her deciding to run away. When she leaves, Daddy Bailey does not even bother to tell her mother that she has left.
Daddy Bailey is a flat character, never rising above his own self-concern and conceit to care for someone else. It is because of his absence in Maya's life that she turns to Freeman for paternal affection, which tragically leads to her rape. In the end, Daddy Clidell, who is Vivian's second husband, is more a father to Maya that Daddy Bailey could ever be.
Vivian is the beautiful, street-smart mother of Maya and Bailey. Her divorce from Daddy Bailey prompts her to send the children away to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps. Vivian is so unconcerned about the children's welfare that she does not even bother to keep in touch with them for several years.
When Maya and Bailey are finally reunited with Vivian, they are so enamored with her beauty that they do not realize she is incapable of being a real mother. She fails both children in many ways. Her greatest failure is not coming home at night to care for the children. It is during one of Vivian's overnight escapades that Mr. Freeman rapes Maya. When Maya retreats into silence after the rape, Vivian is incapable of dealing with it. She promptly sends Maya back to Stamps to live with Momma.
Vivian redeems herself to some degree in the latter part of the book. She marries Daddy Clidell, a successful businessman who treats Maya and Bailey kindly. She also rescues her daughter from the runaway junkyard commune when Maya contacts her. Back in San Francisco, she challenges Maya to think for herself and make her own decision about staying in school. She also disciplines Bailey when he takes up with a white prostitute. By kicking him out of the house, she forces him to grow up. She then helps him get a job with the railroad. Finally, Vivian stands by Maya when she learns that she is pregnant and supports her decision not to marry the father.