Angelou shapes the narrative of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with two traditional themes of autobiography: the triumph over obstacles and the search for identity. The narrator learns that she can rise above adversity to transcend the “tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and the black lack of power.” In addition to these themes run two parallel and sometimes contrasting themes: the black gospel tradition represented by Grandmother Henderson and the black blues represented by Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. The gospel tradition emphasizes a reliance on religion and quiet stoicism in the face of trouble; the blues tradition invokes a spirit of defiance and free expression.
The main character of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya (Marguerite) Angelou, who recalls her childhood from the vantage point of a woman in her late thirties. As a child, Marguerite, alternately called “Ritie” and “Maya,” is a bright, curious, sensitive girl, eager to please others and to learn about her surroundings but self-conscious about her appearance and abilities. She frequently feels ugly and clumsy; these normal feelings of inadequacy intensify with her growing awareness of what it means to be black in the racist South. Her rape at the age of eight and the shame and guilt that accompany it do little to help her self-esteem. But the love of Momma and Bailey, and her passion for reading and observing the world around her, help Maya build her self-esteem.
As she grows older, Maya reveals the resourcefulness and determination that eventually enable her to complete any challenge she creates for herself. When she decides to leave her father’s house but is too proud to call her mother, she decides to live for a month in a junkyard community with other homeless children. When she wants to work on a San Francisco streetcar, she fights until she is accepted as the first black conductor. As the book ends, Maya learns to accept her most delicate challenge, her newborn son. Still a child herself, she initially fears her new responsibility as a mother. But she eventually accepts herself as a competent mother and a capable person.
Maya’s brother, Bailey, complements her personality. His positive self-image helps Maya face and eventually triumph over her own sense of inferiority. Bailey treats his sister with dignity and respect, not with pity, even after her rape. The two remain close as children, but as Bailey grows older, he feels confined within an oppressive female environment. At age sixteen he attempts to assert his manhood by ignoring the curfew his mother has set and associating with pimps and prostitutes. He angrily moves out at his mother’s request, and eventually takes a job with the Southern Pacific railway, but still maintains a close relationship with his family.
Maya’s paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, is the matriarchal head of the family. A symbol of strength, religion and protection, she becomes “Momma” to Maya and Bailey. Beautiful and charming, Maya’s biological mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, introduces her children to the dark, smoky environment of St. Louis’s black night-life. Through her, and her glamorous and often violent brothers and friends, the children learn to appreciate the blues and the Time Step, a black American dance. Although Maya and Bailey return to their grandmother shortly after their mother’s boyfriend rapes Maya, they eventually return to live with their mother in California. The children’s father, Bailey Johnson, rids himself of responsibility by agreeing to send Maya and her brother to live with their grandmother instead of with him. When she is fifteen, Maya plans to reunite with her father by spending the summer with him in southern California. But she cuts her visit short when her father’s irresponsibility and his girlfriend Dolores’s jealousy drive her away.