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.
Maya’s older brother by one year, Bailey is the most important person in Maya’s life throughout her childhood. When moved around from place to place, Bailey and Maya depend on each other to achieve some semblance of stability and continuity in their lives. Unlike Maya, Bailey is graceful, attractive, outgoing, and charming, and many consider him the jewel of his family. Bailey uses his skills and status to protect Maya. With his charms, he defends her against criticism and insults. Bailey and Maya share not just in tragedies but also in private jokes and a love of language and poetry.
One of the most striking differences between Maya and Bailey is their ability to confront racism. Bailey explains to Maya early on that when he senses the negative effects of racism, he essentially puts his soul to sleep so that he can forget the incident. Maya, however, learns to resist racism actively. Bailey and Maya grow further apart as they go through adolescence, and Bailey continues to withdraw deeper into himself. Even so, Maya continues to confide in him, asking for advice about her pregnancy. He continues to show his love for her as well, replying quickly to his sister and giving caring advice.
The return to Stamps from St. Louis traumatizes Bailey, and though he never blames his sister, he remains tormented by his longing for his mother. He expresses his longing through moodiness, sarcasm, and a bold assertion of his independence. In Stamps, he finds outlets for his longing for maternal affection by watching the white movie star who looks like Vivian and by playing “Momma and Papa” with Joyce, his buxom girlfriend who is four years his senior. In San Francisco, Bailey tries to win his mother’s approval by imitating the people she befriends—he becomes the pimp-like boyfriend of a white prostitute. Bailey moves out at age sixteen and gets a job on the Southern Pacific Railroad, explaining that he and Vivian have come to an understanding with each other and that he has grown wise beyond his years.
Maya and Bailey’s paternal grandmother, Momma raises them for most of their childhood. She owns the only store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas, and it serves as the central gathering place for the black community. She has owned the store for about twenty-five years, starting it as a mobile lunch counter and eventually building the store in the heart of the black community. Not knowing that Momma was black, a judge once subpoenaed her as “Mrs. Henderson,” which cemented her elevated status in the mind of the black community.
Similarly, Momma is the moral center of the family and especially of Maya’s life. Momma raises the children according to stern Christian values and strict rules. She is defined by an unshakable faith in God, her loyalty to her community, and a deep love for everything she touches. Despite the affection she feels for her grandchildren, she cares more about their well-being than her own needs, extracting them from the Stamps community when the racist pressures begin to affect Bailey negatively.
While in Stamps, Momma teaches Maya how to conduct herself around white people. She chooses her words, emotions, and battles carefully, especially when race plays a role. Momma considers herself a realist regarding race relations. She stands up for herself but believes that white people cannot be spoken to without risking one’s life. When three nasty poor white children mock Momma from the yard one afternoon, Maya watches furiously, but Momma maintains her dignity by not even acknowledging their taunts. Though stern and not given to emotional or affectionate displays, Momma conveys the depth of her love for Maya and Bailey throughout the book.
Although she has a nursing degree, Maya and Bailey’s mother earns her money working in gambling parlors. Vivian’s parents and brothers are tough city dwellers who thrive in St. Louis amid the chaos of Prohibition, and Vivian seems to have inherited the family’s wild streak. Though her lifestyle differs greatly from that of Momma, Vivian is also strong, proud, practical, and financially independent. She is also devastatingly beautiful—it is fitting that Maya and Bailey discover a white actress with a striking likeness to their mother because to them Vivian appears as a goddess performer who exists in her own personal spotlight. Maya is dumbstruck by Vivian’s magnetic beauty and Bailey falls in love with her at first sight. Maya believes Vivian initially sent them away because Vivian was, in Maya’s opinion, too gorgeous to have children.
Vivian always treats Maya and Bailey well, and it is hard to imagine that she would have sent them so far away as young children. At the same time, however, even when they live together, the children remain peripheral to Vivian’s life. Even after living together for some time and growing closer, Maya notes that Vivian notices Maya not out of the corner of her eye but “out of the corner of her existence.” Showing her practical nature, Vivian sees no need to focus attention on Maya as long as Maya is healthy, well-clothed, and at least outwardly happy.
Throughout the book, Vivian oscillates between her gifts and limitations as a parent. In St. Louis, Vivian does not realize the danger of leaving her young daughter at home with a man who spends all day pining and waiting for her to come home. She does, however, demonstrate a high degree of maternal intuition when her live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually molests and rapes Maya. Without even knowing what has happened, Vivian kicks him out of the house immediately. Later, however, she proves unable to deal with Maya’s post-rape trauma, and Maya and Bailey go back to Stamps. Similarly, in San Francisco, Vivian’s lifestyle prevents her from actively engaging her daughter about Maya’s sexuality, leading indirectly to Maya’s pregnancy. Even so, when Maya becomes pregnant, Vivian supports and encourages her without condemnation, and it is Vivian who gives Maya her first and most important lesson about trusting her maternal instincts. Maya admires Vivian’s unflinching honesty, strength, and caring nature, despite her frequent fumbling as a parent.
Maya and Bailey’s father exemplifies ignorant, parental neglect. He is handsome and vain, and he speaks with proper English, almost to the point of caricaturing a stereotypical, upper-class white man of the time. Big Bailey ruins his own attempts to reconnect with his children, particularly with Maya. Absent from the children’s lives for years, he arrives in Stamps out of the blue one year, impressing the children and everyone else in town with his congenial nature and his fancy car and clothing, but Maya feels neither glad nor sad to see him go when they reach St. Louis. She regards him as a stranger, for he shows little genuine effort to care for her.
Though he resurfaces at the end of the book when Maya is fifteen and living in California, Big Bailey has not changed. Maya learns more about him—that he lives in a trailer park and suffers from many of the same troubles that afflict other black men trying to advance in the world—but he fails to try to learn anything about Maya. Even though Maya enjoys seeing her father’s jubilant spirit in Mexico, the harsh reality of his selfishness continually undermines his appeal.
When first presenting him in the book, Maya questions whether Big Bailey obtains his possessions legally as a railroad porter or whether he advances through illegal means. At that point, he exemplifies the ethics of necessity seen elsewhere in the book, in which blacks compromise ethical behavior to break through the walls of racial injustice. Later, regardless of his methods, he exemplifies the tragedy of the American black man trying to advance in a white society obsessed with class, paying more attention to his image than to his family.
Through a series of personal events, feelings, and thoughts, Maya Angelou is able to captivate its readers with her recounting of her life from her early years up to late adolescence. As readers, we are able to see how Maya grows from the insecure little girl in Arkansas to the strong woman who realizes that she can trust herself and will be able to keep moving forward, which is clearly shown when she realizes that she can take care of her son.
During the last chapter of the book, I feel that Maya does a great job describing the feeli... Read more→
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