I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells the story of Maya Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. She and her brother Bailey are sent away from their parents on a train to live with their grandmother (“Momma”) and Uncle Willie when they are just three and four years old. Their grandmother owns a store, and the children enjoy a certain measure of security. Yet life is difficult for all black people in the segregated American south, and the children encounter various forms of discrimination, degradation, and racial violence.
One day, Marguerite’s father, Big Bailey, arrives, and announces he is taking her and her brother to stay with their mother, Vivien. They leave Stamps for St Louis, and Marguerite feels a longing for home, but isn’t sure where home is. In St. Louis, Marguerite is just beginning to adjust when she is repeatedly assaulted and raped by Vivien’s live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Following Mr. Freeman’s conviction (shortly after which he is murdered) Marguerite returns to Stamps and becomes withdrawn, and she believes her mother sent her and Bailey away because she was too sullen.
Back in Stamps, Marguerite struggles to cope with her assault. She is rescued in a sense by the mentorship of Mrs. Flowers, a woman who teachers Marguerite how to read, recite, appreciate, and memorize poetry. Literature and language will remain in Maya’s life as a source of strength and comfort.
After Bailey is threatened by a white man, Momma decides it is time for the children to be with their mother, who has moved to California. The children move to San Francisco, and live with Vivien and eventually Vivien’s new husband, Daddy Clidell, a con artist whom Maya loves as if he were her own father. Maya and Bailey love their mother dearly, and Maya continues to perform well in school.
One day Maya goes to southern California to stay with her father, and gets in a fight with his live-in girlfriend Dolores Stockland, which results in Maya’s needing stitches. She doesn’t want to humiliate her father, so she runs away and lives in a junkyard until her wound is healed, then goes back to her mother. Shortly thereafter Bailey moves out, and Maya gets a job as San Francisco’s first black streetcar employee.
Things are going well for Maya until she becomes concerned about her sexuality. She fears she is turning into a lesbian (though she doesn’t understand what “lesbian” really means) and believes if she has sex with a boy she will be cured. She does, and the experience is unremarkable until she realizes she is pregnant. She hides her pregnancy for six months before finally telling Mother and Daddy Clidell—they are exceedingly understanding and capable, and help her through the rest of her pregnancy and her labor. Maya gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, and she is so afraid to hurt him she can barely touch him. The book ends with Maya overcoming this fear, with Vivien’s help, and napping with her baby in her bed.