Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? . . . Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.
The prologue alerts the reader to the issues Maya has surrounding her own identity as a black, ungainly girl. Maya dreams of beauty, which she equates with whiteness and daintiness, and she fails on both counts. Maya fantasizes that she is actually white, indicating that one of her challenges in the course of her story will be to accept herself as she is.
Then the possibility of being compared with him occurred to me, and I didn’t want anyone to see him. Maybe he wasn’t my real father. Bailey was his son, true enough, but I was an orphan[.]
The first time Maya’s father visits the children in Stamps, she finds him to be so different from her—in terms of physique, attractiveness, even clothing—that she quickly determines she isn’t his real daughter. Her musings show the low regard in which Maya holds herself. Since she views herself as ugly, she feels unworthy of such a dashing father. Maya has yet to learn that appearances do not sum up her value.
Mother had cut my hair in a bob like hers and straightened it, so my head felt skinned and the back of my neck so bare that I was ashamed to have anyone walk up behind me.
In St. Louis, Maya undergoes a physical transformation at Vivian’s instigation, and here, Maya describes her reaction to her new hairstyle. With the act of cutting and straightening her daughter’s hair, Vivian steals away the child’s identity as a country girl from Arkansas. While she attempts to turn Maya into a mini version of herself, the transformation succeeds in making Maya feel naked, vulnerable, and guilty. Sadly, these feelings encapsulate Maya’s experience in St. Louis overall.
Displeased at my stumbling motions, he was supposed to have said, “This is my sister. I have to teach her to walk.” They also told me how I got the name “My.” After Bailey learned definitely that I was his sister, he refused to call me Marguerite, but rather addressed me each time as “Mya Sister,” and in later more articulate years, after the need for brevity had shortened the appellation to “My,” it was elaborated into “Maya.”
Looking back, Maya explains how her beloved brother, Bailey, gave her the nameMaya. As the only family member who stays with her for her entire childhood—except for a brief period in California—Bailey has a dramatic impact on her development. Further, a different name provides her with a ready-made alternate identity. As she becomes a teenager in San Francisco, she can embrace the persona as she learns how to fight for her rights and explore her own abilities.
When I refused to be the child they knew and accepted me to be, I was called impudent and my muteness sullenness.
After the rape, Maya withdraws into herself and refuses to speak., She explains that, instead of trying to understand her new behaviors, her family gets angry with her and even punishes her. Maya has irrevocably changed as a result of what happened to her, but her family wants to pretend nothing happened so her muteness makes them uncomfortable. Their discomfort with her grows so great that eventually the children get sent back to Stamps.
That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the china tureen and, Mary, I want you to carry it carefully.
Mrs. Cullinan, for whom Maya briefly works, decides to rename her “Mary.” She doesn’t care that she negates Maya’s identity simply to meet her own needs. As a white woman, Mrs. Cullinan’s feelings matter, but Maya’s don’t. When Maya rebels against Mrs. Cullinan by deliberately breaking a treasured casserole and cups, she reclaims her identity as a black girl with a free will, quick mind, and indomitable spirit.
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.
During Maya’s eighth-grade graduation, she must endure a speech that highlights the inequities in education as well as the disparate expectations of black and white students. As she describes here, she inwardly seethes but remains acutely aware that she lacks the power to refute the speaker’s words or effect change. Like other southern blacks, Maya must listen quietly as a white person dehumanizes her and tells her what she can and cannot do.
To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. The fog wasn’t simply the steamy vapors off the bay caught and penned in by hills, but a soft breath of anonymity that shrouded and cushioned the bashful traveler. I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco.
Displaced to San Francisco, Maya instantly takes to her new city, feeling like she truly belongs. Taken from her Arkansas community, where everyone knows her and her background, Maya feels the rush of independence and anonymity. She knows she can reinvent herself in whatever mold she chooses. No longer meek and content to sit mutely on the sidelines, Maya will push herself in new and challenging directions.
Later when asked how I got my job, I was never able to say exactly. I only knew that one day, which was tiresomely like all the others before it, I sat in the Railway office, ostensibly waiting to be interviewed. The receptionist called me to her desk and shuffled a bundle of papers to me. They were job application forms. She said they had to be filled in triplicate.
Determined to work on the streetcars despite the railway’s policy of discrimination, Maya finally wins her battle. Tellingly, she explains that she doesn’t know how she got the job, what action or words finally broke the white bosses down, but the reader has observed her steady determination and understands that she got the job because she refused to give up. Maya herself made this happen with her own obstinacy and refusal to compromise her goal.
She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.
Maya describes a scene with her newborn son, a moment in which she embraces her new identity as a mother, trusting herself to care for the baby and protect him. When he was first born, she was afraid that she would harm him, but Vivian knew that Maya simply needed to see that she could be a good mother. Once Maya discovers that she indeed has the instinctive ability to keep her son safe, she feels at peace with mothering him.