Maya Angelou begins her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with reflections about growing up black and female during the Great Depression in the small, segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Following their parents’ divorce, Angelou, then three years old, moved to Stamps with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle Willie. Their home was the general store, which served as the secular center of the African American community in Stamps. Angelou’s memories of this store include weary farmworkers, the euphoria of Joe Louis’ successful prizefight, and a terrifying nocturnal Ku Klux Klan hunt.
Angelou also recollects lively African American church services, unpleasant interracial encounters, and childhood sexual experimentation. An avid love of reading led the young Angelou to African American writers, including the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, from whose verse Angelou borrows the title for her narrative.
Singing is heard in Angelou’s memories of her segregated Arkansas school. At their grade-school graduation ceremony, Angelou and her classmates counter the racism of a condescending white politician with a defiant singing of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” For Angelou this song becomes a celebration of the resistance of African Americans to the white establishment and a key to her identity as an African American poet.
Angelou spends portions of the narrative with her mother in St. Louis and in California. She has a wild visit to Mexico with her father and is even a homeless runaway for a time. As a girl in St. Louis, Angelou is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Following his trial and mysterious death, Angelou suffers a period of trauma and muteness. Later, an adolescent Angelou struggles with her sexual identity, fears that she is a lesbian, and eventually initiates an unsatisfactory heterosexual encounter, from which she becomes pregnant.
Angelou matures into a self-assured and proud young woman. During World War II, she overcomes racial barriers to become one of the first African American female streetcar conductors in San Francisco. Surviving the uncertainties of an unwanted pregnancy, Angelou optimistically faces her future as an unwed mother and as an African American woman.