Segregation was so complete in the 1930s “that most black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like,” and Angelou herself “never remembers that whites were really white.” In Angelou’s account, a patriarchal white community is located only a half mile from Momma’s general store-where Maya’s family lives and where blacks trade and congregate-but the segregated black community of Stamps constitutes a quasi ghetto.
Law enforcement officials such as the white sheriff who warns Uncle Willie to lay low do little to protect blacks from lawless whites. Practically the only economic opportunity for black males is picking cotton, but a hard day’s work in the white-owned cotton fields yields hardly enough income to cover debts at the general store, let alone enough money to last to the next picking season.
Equal education opportunities are also lacking, and the intellectual capacities of blacks are assumed to be severely limited; the schools provide an academic curriculum for whites and an athletic one for blacks. “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and…Edisons…and [the black] boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises,” writes Angelou. Using both irony and straightforward description, Angelou confronts racism and gender bias, and tries to sensitize readers to these issues.
Angelou’s book includes some rough language and refers to some brutal incidents. Most disturbing is the rape of Maya by Vivian’s boyfriend. The actual rape and its painful physical and emotional consequences are honestly and graphically described. Angelou refrains from sensationalizing this traumatic incident and instead realistically depicts her horror, shame and guilt. The public humiliation of a trial and the fact that her uncles kick her rapist to death intensify Maya’s distress. Although Angelou has managed to come to terms with this assault, readers might find her account shocking. Angelou is also quite frank in her discussion of her sexual awakening. As an adolescent she becomes confused about her body and her desires; Angelou, however, treats her “seduction” of a neighborhood boy and her fear of lesbianism in a sensitive, straightforward manner.