In addition to being a coming of age story, this is a story about the American Dream. Marguerite must come to terms with living in a prejudiced society. The dream that everyone is equal is unrealistic, and she learns to live within the system, challenging it when she can, but also accepting when she can not. In addition, Angelous makes a strong statement for education. It is reading that helps Marguerite survive her troubles, and it is her pursuit of knowledge that bring her the success she eventually achieves.
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At ages 3 & 4, Maragurite (aka "Maya) and her brother Bailey, are sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandparents. Their parents, Bailey Sr. and Vivian, feel that they are unable to care for their children. The brother and sister grow up under the tender but firm care of "Mama" and their uncle, who teach them valuable life lessons about coping with poverty and racism.
When the children are a few years older, their father comes to reclaim them, returning them to their mother, who now lives in St. Louis, Missouri. There, the children meet their eccentric extended family. But not long after their move, Maya is raped by her mother's boyfriend.
The crime colors Maya's life. For many years thereafter, she must confront the implications of her assault, and the road is not easy. She spends some time with her father (who takes her on a frightening journey to Mexico), deal with an abusive stepmother, and even runs away.
A more mature Maya takes a job in San Francisco as one of the first African-American trolley car employees. Her experiences, from innocence, to betrayal, to self-realization, are a "bildungsroman" of a "colored girl" growing up in America.