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The main theme of the novel is Maya’s struggle to survive and grow up in a complicated and harsh world. Maya is extremely young when she and her brother are sent from their parents’ house to live with their grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Arkansas. Life in Stamps is not easy. Momma is a religious fundamentalist and harsh disciplinarian who does not know how to show her love to the children. There is also a great deal of prejudice against blacks in Stamps.
Maya’s life becomes even more of a struggle when she goes to live with her mother in California. The beautiful Vivian makes Maya feel more awkward than ever; she also has no idea how to mother the young Maya. Because of Vivian’s lack of protectiveness, Maya, at the age of eight, is raped by Mr. Freeman, who is Vivian’s live-in boyfriend. When Maya’s uncles learn about the rape, they beat Freeman to death. After this double tragedy, Maya is filled with guilt and shame. As a result, she goes into a state of silence and emotional exile. Unable to handle her emotionally distraught child, Vivian sends Maya back to Stamps to live with Momma. In Arkansas, Maya finds that her color and her gender complicate her life, for she is treated as a second class citizen. To prove her worth, she buries herself in books and studies and graduates from middle school with honors. Shortly afterwards, Momma decides to take Maya back to California to live, for she fears the racism of Stamps.
In California, Maya must compete with Dolores for her father’s attention. When Maya seems to be winning, Dolores turns on her. After insulting Maya, she stabs her with the scissors. The act brings back to Maya thoughts of her frightening past. As a result, she decides to run away. For over a month she survives in a junkyard commune of runaways, where she finds her independence and a sense of self-worth. When she returns to live with Vivian, Maya proves that she can overcome the struggles of life. She gets a job as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco and graduates from high school even though she is eight months pregnant at the time. Her independence and womanhood converge when she gives birth to a son. For the first time in her life, she feels truly needed, connected, and strong. Maya has overcome her many struggle and come of age.
One of the minor themes of the novel is Maya’s search for love. Even as a child Maya’s need for love is thwarted by selfish parents and an undemonstrative grandmother. Though Bailey loves Maya, that is not enough to fill her need. It is this boundless need for affection that makes young Maya easy prey for Mr. Freeman.
Other minor themes that are developed in the novel are racism and sexism. Born at a crucial time in American history, young Maya must struggle for acceptance both as a black person and as a woman. Fortunately for her, she has the determination to see both struggles through to the end.