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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Chapters 1–5

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Chapters 6–10

Summary: Untitled Prologue

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

A young black girl named Maya stands in front of her church congregation on Easter, unable to finish reciting a poem. She wears an unflattering altered taffeta dress that, she notes, is probably a secondhand dress from a white woman, and she fantasizes that one day she will wake up out of her “black ugly dream” and be white and blond instead of a large, unattractive African American girl. After being humiliated in front of everyone and tripped by another child, she ends up running out of church peeing, crying, and laughing all at the same time.

Summary: Chapter 1

Prior to this incident, when Maya is three years old and her brother, Bailey, is four, their parents divorce. Their parents send the children by train with a porter from California to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and her disabled adult son, Willie. The porter abandons the children the next day in Arizona, and the two young children make the rest of the trip to Stamps with pieces of paper tacked on their bodies listing their final destination. Mrs. Henderson, whom the children soon begin to call Momma, owns and runs the only store in the black section of Stamps. The Store is the center of the community, and Momma is one of the community’s most respected residents.

During the cotton-harvesting season, Momma awakes at four in the morning to sell lunches to the crowd of black cotton laborers before they begin the day’s grueling work. In the morning, the laborers appear full of hope and energy, but by the end of the day, they barely have enough energy to drag themselves home. They always earn less than they thought they would, and they often voice suspicions about illegally weighted scales. The stereotype of happy, singing cotton pickers enrages Maya. The laborers never earn enough to pay their debts, much less enough to save a penny.

Summary: Chapter 2

Willie, who was crippled in a childhood accident, acts as the children’s disciplinarian. Willie becomes the butt of jokes in the community, in part due to his handicap, but also because he lives a relatively stable life while most able-bodied black men can barely support themselves. Maya returns home from school one day to see him, for the first time, hiding his handicap from two strangers who have stopped briefly at the Store. Maya understands and sympathizes with the tiring pity and contempt Willie must feel, and the incident makes her feel closer to him. During this time, Maya falls in love with reading, especially William Shakespeare, though she feels a bit guilty because Shakespeare was a white man.

Summary: Chapter 3

One afternoon, Mr. Steward, the white former sheriff, comes to warn Momma that the whites are on the warpath because they say a black man has “messed with” a white woman. Momma hides Willie in the potato and onion bins in case the mob comes to the store looking for a scapegoat to lynch. Luckily it does not, but Maya clearly notes Willie’s moans coming from the bins.

Summary: Chapter 4

As a child, Maya constantly hears from others that she is ugly. She has kinky hair and dark skin, and she is large for her age. Bailey, on the other hand, is a small, graceful and attractive child. Whenever somebody remarks on Maya’s ugly appearance, Bailey makes sure to avenge his sister by insulting the offending party. Maya considers Bailey the most important person in her world.

Summary: Chapter 5

Momma insists that the children observe rules and respect their elders. The only children who do not respect Momma are poor white children. It pains Maya to hear them disrespect Momma and Willie by addressing them by their first names. One day, when Maya is ten, three poor white children approach the Store. Momma sends Maya inside. The children mock Momma by mimicking her stance and gestures and Maya cries with impotent rage. Meanwhile, Momma says nothing and simply hums gospel hymns. One of the older white girls does a handstand, and her dress falls over her head revealing that she wears no underwear. Maya is furious, but when Momma enters the Store, Maya realizes that Momma has somehow fought and won a battle with the white children.

Analysis: Chapters 1–5

The lines from the poem Maya cannot finish, “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . .” capture two of the most significant issues she struggles with in her childhood and young adulthood: feeling ugly and awkward and never feeling attached to one place. First, Maya imagines that though people judge her unfairly by her awkward looks, they will be surprised one day when her true self emerges. At the time, she hopes that she will emerge as if in a fairy-tale as a beautiful, blond white girl. By the age of five or six, Maya has already begun to equate beauty with whiteness, a sign that the racism rampant in the society in which she grows up has infiltrated her mind. Second, uprooted and sent away from her parents at age three, Maya has trouble throughout her life feeling that she belongs anywhere or that she has “come to stay.” Her sense of displacement may stem in part from the fact that black people were not considered full-fledged Americans, but primarily she feels abandoned by her family. When she and Bailey arrive in Stamps, the note posted on their bodies is not addressed to Annie Henderson, but rather “To Whom It May Concern.”

The opening scene in the church introduces these important issues while also conveying the frustration, humiliation, disillusionment, and, finally, liberation that define Maya’s childhood. The childish voice interspersed throughout Angelou’s adult reflections suggests that she is probably five or six years old at the time of the opening scene. Maya does not anchor her prologue in a specific time, suggesting that she continues to experience the emotions of this episode over and over again throughout her life. The prologue ends with an unforgettable description that Angelou uses to foreshadow the nature of the story to come. She says that growing up as a black girl in the South is like putting a razor to one’s throat, but, even worse, when that black girl feels alienated from her own black community, her sense of displacement is like the rust on the razor, making life even more unbearable. She says that her displacement is “an unnecessary insult.” Since the opening scene shows that Angelou was aware of her displacement, she prepares us to witness a childhood full of such extra insults. Nevertheless, it is significant that Maya manages to escape the critical, mocking church community and laugh about her liberation, even though she knows that she will be punished for it. Maya’s escape foreshadows her eventual overcoming of the limitations of her childhood.

Maya’s experiences in the Store (“Store” is capitalized by Angelou) tell much about black rural small-town life during the 1930s. After the Civil War and after they had been promised land and animals with which to farm, blacks in the South entered into a period of American history nearly as discriminatory and violent as the period of slavery. The post-Reconstruction era, known as the Jim Crow era, witnessed the systematic destruction of the black farmer in the South at the hands of resentful whites who sought to undermine the black entitlement to property, animals, financial support, or even wages. The Jim Crow era also brought with it severe segregation laws that affected every walk of life and spurred the development of white racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized black communities. Positioned in the Store at the center of the community, Maya vividly and poignantly describes the cotton pickers’ plight, describing their beleaguered bodies, their torn clothes, and their wearied faces when returning from the fields. Moreover, though Stamps is so thoroughly segregated that, as a child, Maya feels she hardly knows what white people look like, the social and economic effects of segregation profoundly affect Maya, her family, and her experiences. Maya recounts Mr. Steward’s warning of the white lynch mob as an example of the conflicted nature of many whites’ acts of kindness toward blacks. According to Maya, however, his casual attitude toward the terrorization of the black community destroys any virtue his gesture might indicate. Even Willie, whom he deems “innocent,” has to hide in a potato bin all night while the white men scour the black section of Stamps for a scapegoat.

Against the backdrop of such terrifying events, Momma keeps her faith and self-respect, providing an influential example for Maya and Bailey. Her confrontation with the three white girls—another example of the overt insidiousness of racism—becomes a victory for Momma because she refuses to be displaced. While Maya feels apprehension, Momma’s refusal to retreat inside the Store at their approach diffuses any threat the children pose to her authority or her identity. Under her silent, impassive gaze, their antics become an embarrassment to them, not to Momma. Momma addresses the girls with respect, demonstrating her maturity and poise. She shows that, though these girls may be above her on the social ladder, she is better and stronger than they are. In the context of the girls’ ridiculous and terrible behavior, a level to which Momma never stoops herself, Momma’s respectful address becomes ironic. From the beginning, Maya shows that Momma and Bailey—her hero who sticks up for her time and time again—provide her with a loving, respectful foundation that will support her in the future.

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Great autobiography

by maria106, November 14, 2012

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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