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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Chapters 16–19

Chapters 11–15

Chapters 20–22

Summary: Chapter 16

Maya takes a job in Mrs. Viola Cullinan’s home at the age of ten. The cook, Miss Glory, a descendant of the slaves once owned by the Cullinans, informs Maya that Mrs. Cullinan could not have children and Maya feels pity for Mrs. Cullinan. One day, one of Mrs. Cullinan’s friends infuriates Maya when she suggests that Mrs. Cullinan call Maya “Mary” because “Margaret” is too long. Even worse, Maya notes, her name is Marguerite, not Margaret. When Mrs. Cullinan begins calling her Mary, Maya becomes furious. She knows Momma will not allow her to quit, so she decides she must find a way to get fired. She deliberately slacks in her work, but to no avail. Maya then takes Bailey’s advice and breaks some of Mrs. Cullinan’s heirloom china, making it look like an accident. Mrs. Cullinan drops her veneer of genteel racism and insults Maya with a racist slur. Upon hearing Mrs. Cullinan’s sobs and screams, her friends crowd into the kitchen and one of them asks if “Mary” is responsible. Mrs. Cullinan screams, “Her name’s Margaret.”

Summary: Chapter 17

One evening, Bailey stays out until well after dark. Willie and Momma do not mention their concern, but Momma takes Maya with her to search for Bailey. They find Bailey trudging home, but he does not offer an explanation for his lateness. He stoically receives a severe whipping, and Maya notes that for days it seems like Bailey has no soul. Later Bailey explains to Maya that he was late because he had seen a movie starring a white actress, Kay Francis, who looked like Vivian, and he stayed late to watch the movie a second time. They wait for weeks before another Kay Francis movie comes to the theater. Maya laughs at the irony of a beloved white actress looking just like her black mother. The movie delights Maya, but it saddens Bailey. On the way home, he frightens Maya by dashing across the tracks in front of an oncoming railway car. Maya wonders if Bailey would ever jump on one of the trains and go away. A year later, he boards a boxcar, but succeeds only in stranding himself in Baton Rouge for two weeks.

Summary: Chapter 18

The annual revival meeting interrupts the harsh daily existence in Stamps. People from all the black churches attend. This year, the preacher delivers a sermon admonishing those who practice false charity. Everyone knows it is a diatribe against white Christian hypocrisy. They give to poor blacks with the expectation that the recipient be humble and self-belittling in return. The sermon promises divine revenge and divine justice.

Afterward, the preacher announces that the unsaved should come forward and choose which church they want to join. Maya remarks that no minister has ever worked to gather members for different churches. She says he is practicing charity. Afterward, everyone relishes the sensation of righteousness. However, when they pass a noisy, secular, honky-tonk party, they fall silent and bow their heads, sensing again the presence of sin in the black world. Nevertheless, Maya notes that, to an outsider, those who attend the revival and those who visit the honky-tonk that night both appear to be trying to escape their harsh lives.

Summary: Chapter 19

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

People crowd inside the Store to listen to the heavyweight championship boxing match on the radio, desperately hoping that Joe Louis, a hero for the black community, will defend his title. Maya explains that if Louis were to lose, everything racist whites say about blacks would be true. His loss would represent and justify another lynching, another raped black woman, another beaten black boy. When Louis wins the fight, everyone in the Store celebrates with abandon. Maya says that Louis proves that blacks are the most powerful people in the world.

Analysis: Chapters 16–19

Maya’s indignation toward Mrs. Cullinan for presumptuously renaming her attests to Maya’s strong pride in her self, now revealed in the face of complex racist forces. Mrs. Cullinan does not bother to learn Maya’s real name, Marguerite, and she chooses to change it for her own convenience. She does not exhibit violent racism, but she perpetrates an indignity that American blacks have faced throughout history. Mrs. Cullinan’s renaming constitutes yet another form of displacement for Maya, this time racial displacement. She remarks upon the danger associated with calling a black person anything that could be loosely interpreted as insulting because blacks have been labeled negatively for centuries as “niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks.” Maya’s reaction to Mrs. Cullinan’s re-naming exemplifies the subtle forms of resistance available to American blacks. Maya cannot directly demand recognition of her identity, but she finds a subversive form of resistance. This resistance powerfully affects Mrs. Cullinan. By switching back to Margaret, Mrs. Cullinan believes that she has reasserted her power over Maya as well as protected the holy name Mary from tarnish. Essentially, however, she has relinquished the name that was her symbol of power over Maya. Mary may have been under her control, but Margaret is not. Maya regains her name and her sense of self.

Maya describes numerous other instances of subtle black resistance to racism in these chapters. The black southern church is an avenue for subversive resistance. At the revival, the preacher gives a sermon that criticizes white power without directly naming it. His diatribe against greedy, self-righteous employers clearly attacks white farmers for paying miserable wages to black field labor. Movies and other popular culture of the 1930s disseminated terribly demeaning racial stereotypes of blacks. However, Maya’s secret joke in the movie theater allows her a kind of resistance against the movie’s negative portrayals of black people. Maya laughs in response to the Kay Francis movie because the white actress adored by the white audience looks like her mother, a black woman. Incidentally, at the same time that Maya delights in this irony, Bailey clearly suffers with longing for his mother. Just seeing her likeness sends him into a deep melancholy. The intensity of his feelings will eventually create a rift between him and Maya symbolized and foreshadowed here by his running recklessly across the train tracks and abandoning Maya on the other side.

Despite recognizing the personally empowering nature of these instances of resistance, Maya’s descriptions illustrate that such resistance rarely affects great change, even within the African-American community. Instead, such resistance often simply serves to save the black community from drowning in the desperation and despair that envelops them. Maya’s description of the symbolic meaning behind the boxing match between Joe Louis and a white challenger attests to the pervasive nature of racism in 1930s America. For Maya and the members of her community, Joe Louis’s victory is an empowering repudiation of the negative stereotypes heaped upon blacks. Underlying their joy, however, the desperate fact remains: Louis must bear the hopes and dreams of the entire black American community. White society prevented most forms of black advancement. Moreover, the few black Americans who did advance received little public attention for their achievements. When they did successfully garner public acclaim, role models and heroes such as Louis became figures that the black community relied upon for strength.

Unfortunately, Maya notes, sometimes those who practice subtle forms of resistance defeat themselves. The desperation in the Store during the fight attests to both the highs and the potential lows of the psychological resistance. Immediately after the revival meeting, the spiritually invigorated revivalists hear the people partying at a honky-tonk and bow their heads. Maya notes that the crushing realities of their daily struggles begin to replace their short-lived happiness. Both the sinners at the honky-tonk and the revival members share the same desire to shake off their troubles. However, the individual revival members only see the differences and suffer from despair. Rather than seeing the honky-tonk as another form of subtle empowerment, the church community sees it as a burden.

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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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