After leaving Big Bailey’s friends’ house, Maya spends the night in a car in a junkyard. When she wakes, a group of black, Mexican, and white homeless teenagers stand outside laughing at her through the windows. They tell her she can stay as long as she follows the rules: people of the opposite sex cannot sleep together, stealing is forbidden because it attracts police attention, and everyone works, committing their earnings to the community. Maya stays for a month. Everyone enters a dance contest on Saturday nights, and Maya and her partner win second prize during her last weekend. Maya learns to appreciate diversity and tolerance fully that month, something that influences her the rest of her life, she notes in retrospect. At the end of the summer, Maya calls Vivian and asks her to pay her airfare to San Francisco. The group accepts the news of her impending departure with detachment, although everyone wishes her well.
Maya notes that she has changed much since the start of the summer, but Bailey, who also seems to have aged significantly, shows indifference toward Maya’s tales. Still, they share an interest in dancing and become a sensation at the big-band dances in the city auditorium. Meanwhile, Maya notes, Bailey and Vivian have become estranged. Unconsciously seeking Vivian’s approval, Bailey begins wearing flashy clothing and dating a white prostitute, trying to model himself after Vivian’s male associates. Vivian seems unaware that her own preferences have influenced his tastes. She demands that he stop dating the white prostitute, and he begins disobeying her rules. Eventually, Bailey moves out. He and Vivian quickly reconcile, and she promises to arrange a job for him in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Maya acts as a neutral party but becomes terribly upset when Bailey moves out. Bailey assures her that he has a mature mind and that the time has come for him to leave the nest.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
Maya decides to take a semester off from school and work. For weeks, she persists in trying to get a job as a streetcar conductor despite racist hiring policies. She finally succeeds in becoming the first black person to work on the San Francisco streetcars. When she returns to school, she feels out of place among her classmates. American black women, she says, must not only face the common problems associated with adolescence, but also racism and sexism. Therefore, it does not surprise her that black women who survive these conflicts possess strong characters.
The Well of Loneliness (a classic work of 1920s lesbian fiction by Radclyffe Hall) is Maya’s first introduction to lesbianism. She does not really understand what a lesbian is, and she begins to fear that she is turning into one because she confuses lesbianism with being a hermaphrodite. She notes that she has a deep voice, underdeveloped breasts and hips, and no under-arm hair. She resolves to ask Vivian about a strange growth on her vagina. Vivian explains that the changes are perfectly normal.
Vivian’s answer relieves Maya, but she still has unanswered fears about whether she might be a lesbian. Maya decides to get a boyfriend to settle the matter once and for all. However, all of her male acquaintances busily chase light-skinned, straight-haired girls. Maya casually and frankly propositions one of two handsome brothers who live near her, but their unromantic, unsatisfying encounter does not relieve her anxieties about being an abnormal girl. Three weeks later, she discovers that she is pregnant.
Maya accepts full responsibility for her pregnancy. She writes to Bailey for advice, and he tells her to keep it a secret. Vivian opposes abortions, and he fears she would make Maya quit school. Maya throws herself into school and confesses after graduating that she is eight months pregnant. Vivian and Daddy Clidell calmly accept Maya’s impending, unwed motherhood without condemnation.
Maya gives birth to a son. She is fascinated by the baby and afraid to touch him. Vivian finally makes Maya sleep with her three-week-old son. Fearing that she will crush him, Maya attempts unsuccessfully to stay awake all night. Vivian wakes her later to show how the baby lies, resting comfortably in the crook of her arm. Vivian tells Maya that she does not have to worry about doing the right thing because if her heart is in the right place, she will do the right thing regardless. Maya peacefully returns to sleep next to her son.
The final chapters of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings detail Maya’s rapid journey into adulthood. Maya experiences important intellectual growth while staying in the junkyard. After a month, she says, “[M]y thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself.” Before she stays in the junkyard, she has limited contact with people of other races. That month in the junkyard, she forms full-fledged friendships with Mexican and white teenagers. Her acceptance into such a mixed group proves an unusual experience, considering her isolated childhood. She feels that she is part of the greater human race.
The experience in the junkyard also shows that Maya’s growing sense of independence and confidence in her self has begun to -coalesce and intensify. Only days before, she surprised herself by driving the car in Mexico, and now she strikes out on her own to spend a month in a junkyard living in a responsibly managed communal society. The intensity of her poise and self-assurance fuels her quest for the position on the streetcar when she returns home to San Francisco. Other employers desperately seek laborers at higher wages without discrimination, yet Maya refuses to give up the job she has chosen. At age fifteen, she has developed a surprising adult will. Once hired, she ceases to live in a world demarcated by black neighborhoods and continues to rush headlong into the larger world.
Nevertheless, Maya’s most rapid affirmation of her induction into the world of adulthood—the birth of her baby boy—also symbolizes the fact that Maya is still a child in many ways. The final chapter details Maya’s sensual awakening, not unlike the awakening of a typical adolescent, complete with fears and questions about sex and appearance. Angelou specifically references her youthful innocence when she uses the phrase “had I been older” in describing the incident with her classmate’s beautiful breasts.
Just as Maya’s rape appeared to be a direct result of her displacement, in some ways Maya’s pregnancy results from her continued displacement from her mother Vivian. Vivian certainly takes Maya seriously when Maya questions her about sex. Vivian does not, however, take an active interest in finding out whether she has answered all of Maya’s questions, thinking that everything will be all right once Maya washes her face, has a glass of milk, and returns to sleep. Even up until the end of the book, Vivian continues to look at Maya not out of the corner of her eye, but “out of the corner of her existence.” Maya remains a child sexually and thus without parental guidance in matters concerning sex she is loosed to the world of sex and pregnancy and physical adulthood with only her own instincts to guide her.
The autobiography ends, however, with an overwhelmingly positive picture of Vivian. Vivian makes mistakes along the way, but she nevertheless survives with the strength and honesty that provide sustenance for and rub off on Maya in the end. When Maya becomes pregnant, Vivian supports and encourages her without condemnation, and she gives Maya her first and most important lesson about trusting her maternal instincts. Maya admires her unflinching honesty, her strength, and her caring nature, despite her frequent fumbling as a parent.
Angelou places both Vivian and even herself within the tradition of black women with strong characters and honorable survival mechanisms. Angelou says she often hears people react to the formidable character of black women in America as if they are surprised or offended. This, in turn, surprises Angelou. She feels that black women must struggle so much to survive that, when they do, their formidable character is predictable. She goes on to say that this inevitable strength of character should be respected if not accepted with enthusiasm. Maya demonstrates that the universal struggles of adolescence combine with the stresses of race and gender to make black women’s struggles all the more challenging.
Even if one is unacquainted with Angelou’s poem of the same name, the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings seems particularly apt given the subject matter of the book. Maya compares herself, her black female role models, and even her entire race to the bird who is locked in a cage but nevertheless sings. Maya implies that by reading her autobiography, the reader will come to understand why the bird sings despite being locked up in a cage. At the same time, the title implies the possibility that the reason why the caged bird sings could be a secret, one that Maya holds close inside her, away from the tampering, meddling forces of the prison master. We can guess why the bird sings—perhaps to break free, perhaps to provide solace to itself, perhaps because its voice is its only means of action or communication, or perhaps because the bird feels joy knowing something others do not. Maya’s widely varied and insightful depiction of the African-American struggle affords many possible reasons.
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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