I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

We first see the main characters - Maya and Bailey - as toddlers, alone in a train car without any adult care. Their parents divorced and just sent kids to their grandmother, not caring too much about them reaching the destination point alive and well. The kids, of course, blame themselves for being neglected.They are black, so Maya wonders if her mom and dad would leave her if she was white and beautiful. Bailey doesn’t ask questions, he is just full of sorrow and anger and doesn’t expect anything good from their further life.

It seems Bailey is right. The rural town of Stamps is in the middle of nowhere and their paternal grandmother they call Momma is a strict woman. She does care about the kids but in her own harsh way. Their uncle - Momma’s son living with her - is not above of beating the kids for disobedience or for being less than perfect. Every evening after they started school he asks them about their homework, beating them and not allowing to go to sleep until everything is done exceptionally well. Maya grows up incredibly shy and her self-confidence never recovers from her parents’ rejection. Once she has to read a poem in the church but is so embarrassed that she can’t say a word. In tears she runs away from church. Maya has a hysteric fit, wetting herself and becoming a laughingstock, but Bailey, using his charisma and wit, talks the people off and protects Maya.

The kids spend time in a cotton store, talking to other black workers who come there. Soon Maya and Bailey learn that the racial prejudices make the life of the black people even harder. The lynch mobs eventually storm through the city, Maya’s and Bailey’s own family is disrespected and mocked on usual basis and no one really cares. It deeply insults both kids, each in their own way. They can’t even go to the cinema to have fun without being mocked, laughed at or even endangered. But still the kids seem to get used to Stamps, their new family and life.

The things seem to change when they receive a postcard from their father. Both kids are shocked - they were sure their parents died (if they weren’t dead they would surely find their kids, right?). The year after that the father comes to visit them. He isn’t the most pleasant person in the world; egotistical and vain, but still he is the man from the big city, so all the town’s attention is immediately focused on him. After three weeks or so he leaves as unexpectedly as he came - but now he takes Maya and Bailey with him. Alas, not for long. He goes to California and the kids quickly become a burden to him, so he sends them to their mother, Vivian.

Vivian is an incredibly nice woman, intelligent, kind and elegant. She has only one flaw: her everchanging lovers. She works in gambling parlors and indulges in her alluring and carelessly wild lifestyle of “live fast, die young”. Soon one of her lovers, Mr. Freeman starts to molest Maya, who is only eight years old at the moment and later rapes her. Threatened and ashamed, the girl keeps silent, but Vivian learns that from Maya’s suspicious behaviour, immediately throws Mr. Freeman out and takes him to the court. Maya is too shy again to say what he did to her and Mr. Freeman isn’t jailed. But very soon his mutilated dead body is found on the streets. No one talks loudly about it but everyone is sure that the gangs Vivian worked for helped her avenge her daughter.

Despite this, Maya, as usual, blames herself for everything that happened. Frightened that she provoked a grown man to assault her and ashamed that she didn’t say anything in the court, the girl decides to never speak again, not to be “the mouth of the Devil” anymore. Vivian takes her silence mildly at first thinking that Maya is suffering from psychological trauma but soon the behaviour of her daughter start to annoy her and she angrily sends the kids off, back to Stamps for disrespectful behaviour that embarrasses her in front of important people.

Bailey, who has already got used to comparatively luxurious life and started to enjoy the gangster culture, doesn’t take it easy. He doesn’t blame Maya though, understanding that she went through something unbearable. But even in Stamps Maya still keeps silent. Momma tries her best to break through this silence. Despite her harsh attitude she is genuinely worried about her granddaughter. Finally Momma finds a teacher, a lady named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. Bertha is very kind and understanding. She doesn’t demand from Maya to speak outright, but gives her a poetry book instead asking her to read the words that don’t belong to her. Gradually, Maya gets used to speak again and is cured from her trauma.

In the meantime Bailey wreaks havoc among the teenagers in Stamps. He tries to cope with his moving back hanging around with local gangs and flirting with girls, trying to embarrass them by offering them sex. But one of them, who is fourteen years old, actually agrees and now it’s Bailey’s turn to be embarrassed. They have sex and even a brief romance, but soon the girl leaves the town leaving Bailey sad and heartbroken. This event also calms him down for a while.

Maya grows up, learning more and more about her community. She attends the church, marvelled by unity and understanding of black people. Even the sermons in the church often mention the inequality as something the oppressed people shall fight against. The raising of spirits vanishes very soon - people go drink, party and return to their mundane activity in the morning - but still the girl remembers that feeling. Later Maya observes all the community listening to the radio. It is the boxing championship and the last boxers are black and white. Everyone sincerely wishes Joe Louis (the black one) victory. They don’t know him, most are even not interested in boxing but still the members of the community feel connected to the boxer, because he is black as they are and knows everything they went through.

But still, outside of the black community, Maya is as discriminated as other black people even despite she is only ten. She is hired by a white woman who can’t even remember her name, calling the girl “Mary” just because she wants so. Maya is furious and purposefully breaks a precious vase while cleaning. Of course she is fired immediately. Later, in her school the principal says in the graduation speech that black pupils are expected to be either athletes or servants. Finally, when Maya has a toothache and Momma takes her to the dentist, he is clearly disgusted saying that he’d better treat a stray dog than a black child. The things get worse with time. When Bailey returns home and tells that he saw a white man looking with delight at the rotting corpse of the killed black man, Momma understands that it is too dangerous to stay in Stamps. She starts to save money to send the kids back to Vivian, hoping that their mother will accept them back.

When Maya is thirteen, she and Bailey move back to Los Angeles. Vivian, who has now a big and fancy house and another lover named Daddy Cidell, greets them warmly and Cidell himself is nice to both of them. Both kids finally feel at home, even despite the beginning of the World War II and disappearance of all Japanese people while everyone pretends that everything is fine. Then their father appears again, offering Maya to spend her vacations with him. The girl is very excited at first but then, when she comes to his place in Los Angeles, she sees that her father hasn’t changed at all. He is still absolutely self-centered and egotistic and his new girlfriend Dolores is outright cruel to her. Maya has grown up from her shyness long ago and their quarrels soon result in a fight. Maya gets hurt and, offended, she just runs away and lives among the gang of homeless teenagers for almost a month before going back to Los Angeles.

Bailey in the meantime becomes more and more delinquent. He drinks, gambles and spends time with the local gangs. The last straw is when Bailey brings home his prostitute and Vivian sees it - the woman immediately throws him out of her house. When Maya returns home she is alone now. Tired of being treated as a kid, she finds a job as a conductor in a streetcar. It is quite hard for her because of the same racial prejudice she faced in Stamps - white people don’t want to see the black girl too often. Maya manages to occupy this position only for a few month and then she is fired without any reason (just under white pressure).

Maya returns to school. She starts to think about her awakening sexuality and her sexual orientation. She is doubting she is heterosexual, neither Vivian’s serious talks about sex, nor having sex with her male friends convince her. But such experiments soon result in her pregnancy. Maya tries to hide her pregnancy from her mother, knowing that Vivian wouldn’t appreciate this fact. She is really lucky: Vivian is still too immersed in her nightlife to pay too much attention to her daughter. Maya graduates from school and soon gives birth to her baby. The story ends while we see Maya finding confidence and strength and accepting her role as a mother. She is indeed able to care for her baby much better than her parents cared for herself and Bailey.