At the beginning of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya is a precocious young girl suffering not just from the typical traumas associated with being black and female in America, but also from the trauma of displacement. Smart and imaginative, Maya nevertheless feels that people judge her unfairly due to her ungainly appearance. Feeling misunderstood, she fantasizes that she is a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl trapped in a “black ugly dream” and will soon wake up and reveal her true self. Maya describes her social and familial displacement as “unnecessary insults” on top of the general difficulties associated with growing up as a black girl in the segregated American South. The South presents Maya with three tremendous impediments: white prejudice, black powerlessness, and female subjugation.
In addition to these broad societal obstacles, Maya endures many personal traumas in her lifetime as well. Her parents abandon her and Bailey when Maya is three, and her sense of abandonment and her need for physical affection lead to further struggles. Five years later, she must leave the only home she has known and live in an unknown city where she seeks comfort in Mr. Freeman, who molests and rapes her. At age ten, having already witnessed callous whites mistreating the people she loves most, such as Momma, Maya begins to experience racism directly. Mrs. Cullinan tries to rename and demean her, and the racist, white dentist Dr. Lincoln says he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than treat Maya’s problem. In San Francisco, Maya’s confusion about sexuality becomes compounded when she becomes pregnant at age sixteen.
Angelou’s autobiography documents her victories and successes as well. With Bailey’s and Momma’s unwavering love and later encouragement from Vivian, Daddy Clidell, and numerous role models and friends, Maya gains the strength to overcome difficulties and realize her full potential. She learns to confront racism actively and eventually secures a position as the first black conductor aboard a San Francisco streetcar, which is perhaps her crowning achievement in the book. She also learns to confront her own failings with dignity and honor, never forgetting her guilt about lying in court and, in the Los Angeles junkyard, realizing the need to think not just in terms of black and white, but in terms of humanity in all its diversity. She shows the power of forgiveness as she tries to find positive qualities in Big Bailey and to show compassion toward Dolores. She remains insecure, especially about her sexuality and appearance, but eventually she learns to trust her own abilities, as we see in the final scene, when she realizes that she will be able to care for her newborn son.