In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou tells the story of her childhood. When they were less than five years old, their parents divorced so she and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Arkansas. Her grandmother ran the general store, which was the center of the black community. People came there for supplies but also to socialize. Maya and Bailey learned many things at the store, including measuring and making change. They also spent much of their free time reading.
Segregation was so prevalent in Stamps that most black children didn’t know what whites looked like. Occasionally, however, their paths crossed. Some of the poor white kids came into Momma’s (grandmother’s) store. They started to imitate Momma, but when they tired of that one girl did a handstand in front of her. From inside the store, Maya could see that the girl was not wearing underwear. When the girls left, Momma told Maya to wash her tear-stained face. Afterwards Maya raked the yard to eliminate the white girls’ footprints.
After a few years, Maya and Bailey’s father arrived to take them to St. Louis where their mother lived. Maya felt she must have been sent away to Stamps originally because her mother was “too beautiful to have children.” She learned that her maternal grandmother was not only part white but also a precinct captain. They and their mother lived with her at first but then moved out with their mother and her boyfriend Mr. Freeman. When she was eight years old, Mr. Freedman raped Maya and threatened to kill Bailey if she screamed or told anyone. Maya hid her soiled panties under her mattress, which fell out when Bailey changed the sheets. Bailey told Maya she had to say who raped her and promised he wouldn’t let the man kill him. Grandmother had Mr. Freeman arrested but he got off, only to be found dead later. Shortly thereafter, Maya and Bailey returned to Stamps.
After Bailey and Maya arrived, the black residents of Stamps gathered in Momma’s store to listen to Joe Louis fight a white man in the boxing ring. They took such pride in the fact that a white man was defeated by a black man. Blacks also attended revivals in Stamps. There they comforted themselves with the idea that while the whites who mistreated them would be punished in the afterlife, they would be rewarded.
Unfortunately, whites sometimes intruded on the happiest occasions. Maya eagerly anticipated her graduation from eighth grade. When the ceremony began, however, a white man from the school district spoke about the improvements being made at the white schools so those kids could attend college. Black schools would not receive improvements and were only given credit by this man for being athletic. His speech soured everyone’s mood until the valedictorian recited a poem by a black author about endurance.
Momma used endurance to get dental care for Maya. Even though she lent him money, the white dentist refused to treat Maya because of her skin color. Momma forced him to pay interest on the money she lent him so she could afford the trip to the black dentist. Finally Momma decided that white and black relations in Stamps were too volatile for the children. Maya and Bailey left Stamps to stay with their mother in California when Bailey saw a dead black man being kicked by a white man.
In San Francisco, Bailey and Maya lived with their mother and her husband. Their mother gambled for a living because she refused to work for whites. Maya attended school with white kids for the first time. She also took evening classes in drama and dance at an adult college.
During the summer Maya’s father invited her to visit him and his girlfriend in Southern California. He took Maya on a trip to Mexico, where he slept with another woman and got so drunk that Maya had to attempt driving for the first time in order to get home. When they arrived home, her father’s girlfriend took out her anger at the father by calling Maya’s mother a whore. Maya slapped her and the girlfriend cut Maya so badly that she needed to be treated by a neighbor. After she stayed overnight with one of her father’s friends, Maya decided to run away. Maya felt there would only be more violence if her mother heard about her wound. She spent a month sleeping in a junkyard with other homeless teens until her wound healed and she called her mother for a ticket home.
Soon after Maya returned, Bailey began to defy their mother by staying out past curfew. He found an apartment and planned to become a dining car waiter. He told Maya that he believed the future of black people would be positive. When he left home, Maya started her own efforts to get a job. She wanted to be a conductress on a streetcar—a job that was reserved for whites. Her mother supported her efforts and through persistence Maya became the first African American to get that job.
Throughout her senior year in high school, Maya was a voracious reader. After she read a book about lesbianism, Maya worried that she might be a lesbian. She decided having a boyfriend would make her normal, so she asked a boy from the neighborhood to have sex with her. Three weeks later, Maya realized she was pregnant. Initially she hid the pregnancy from her mother but confessed in a note. Her mother did not scold her, she just accepted the situation. Maya loved her new son but was afraid to touch him or sleep with him. Her mother made her sleep with the baby and told her that she would be a good mother as long as she had good intentions for her son.