1. What is the significance of the opening scene of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?
The first lines of the book are two lines of a poem Maya tries to recite in church on Easter Sunday: “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . .” These lines correspond to two main issues she struggles with throughout her childhood: unhappiness with her appearance and a perpetual feeling of displacement.
From an early age, Maya has been told that she is ugly both by blacks, who notice the good looks of her brother and her parents, but also by the racist American culture itself because her skin is dark and her hair is kinky. In her fantasy, she sloughs off this unattractive shell—a curse put on her by a jealous “fairy stepmother”—revealing her true features: straight blond hair and blue eyes. Maya has been fantasizing about the lavender taffeta dress Momma altered for her and how in church she would look like one of the genteel white girls whom everybody seemed to think of as perfect. But the dress’s magic fades as she sees it for what it is, a white woman’s throwaway, and she ends up self-conscious and humiliated.
With this opening scene Angelou encapsulates the struggles that Maya will face in the years to come. Most black children in Stamps, Arkansas, rarely had contact with white people because the segregation was so complete, yet at the age of five or six, Maya has already internalized the idea that whiteness equals beauty. The opening scene demonstrates the pervasive effects of racism on a black southern girl’s consciousness. Although she is unaware, on an abstract level, of her displacement in society, Maya has already begun to regard her identity as a stigma.
Maya manages to escape the critical, mocking church community and laugh about her liberation, even though she knows she’ll get punished for it. Maya’s escape foreshadows the fact that she eventually overcomes the limitations of her childhood.
2. What is the significance of Maya’s confrontation with Mrs. Cullinan?
Maya’s indignation when Mrs. Cullinan attempts to rename her Mary signals Maya’s deepening sense of self-worth and race consciousness. Her subsequent rebellion—breaking the white woman’s heirloom china—is a key moment in her development of a strong, positive sense of self. This renaming constitutes yet another form of displacement for Maya, and it reminds her of the renaming that occurs when white people use pejorative racial epithets in reference to blacks. Maya does not clarify whether she truly internalizes Mrs. Cullinan’s renaming as a threat to her identity racially. Nevertheless, when Mrs. Cullinan presumptuously tries to determine Maya’s name, Maya becomes furious and wishes to defend her identity.
Maya’s reaction to Mrs. Cullinan exemplifies the subtler forms of resistance available to American blacks. According to social codes, Maya could not directly demand recognition of her identity, but she finds a subversive form of resistance. When Mrs. Cullinan yet again calls her Mary, Maya breaks some of her favorite dishes and then pretends that it was an accident, as Bailey recommended she do. Mrs. Cullinan drops her veneer of gentility and begins screaming racist remarks at Maya, showing the power of Maya’s action to expose Mrs. Cullinan. Moreover, by switching back to Maya’s original name, Mrs. Cullinan unwittingly relinquishes control over Maya and admits defeat. “Mary” is her property, but “Margaret” is not.
3. What is the significance of the sermon delivered at the annual revival?
The black southern church constituted another avenue for subversive resistance. At the revival, the preacher gives a sermon that criticizes white power without directly naming it. He never mentions white people, but his diatribe against greedy, self-righteous employers clearly attacks whites for paying miserable wages to black field laborers. He criticizes people who give charity with the expectation that the recipient will, in return, humble him or herself. He implicitly unleashes a diatribe against so-called charity from whites. Often, white people expected the black recipients of their charity to accept their lowly positions and avoid having pride in themselves. The people at the revival could entertain fantasies of their oppressors burning in hell with the support of divine will. For the most part, they shoulder the burden of their disadvantages of poverty and discrimination with resignation, attributing their suffering to God’s will. However, on occasion, the black church provides an outlet for their smoldering anger.
4. How does friendship with Louise change Maya?
Maya’s experiences prior to her first friendship—with Louise—mature her beyond her years. Before the rape, she is isolated, and after the rape, she becomes even more so. Moreover, she and Bailey grow apart as they each enters the turbulent years of adolescence. Maya moves largely in a world of adults—Mrs. Flowers, Momma, and Willie. With Louise, Maya begins to experience being a young girl for the first time. They speak inventive languages with each other. They hold hands and play in the forest, looking up at the sky like children. With Louise, Maya examines the question of young love and crushes on Valentine’s Day. Their friendship is also Maya’s first relationship that begins beyond the confines of her family. Perhaps symbolically, their friendship emerges when Maya ventures into the forest away from the fish fry to find a private place to pee.
Big Bailey does not show respect for Maya. He likes to use her to distract his increasingly dissatisfied girlfriend, Dolores, contributing to the final explosion of animosity between Dolores and Maya. At first, Maya views Big Bailey as a handsome stranger, but in California she sees him as a man who is self-deceived. He works in the kitchen of a naval hospital but calls himself a medical dietitian. He speaks with proper English and puts on airs, but he lives in a trailer park and travels to Mexico to drink and sleep around. With the trip to Mexico, Big Bailey tries to show Maya a sphere where he feels empowered after having been disenfranchised for his entire life. Nevertheless, he becomes too drunk to see his daughter shining with pride over her accomplishment in the seat next to him on the way home. Moreover, he reacts selfishly to the confrontation between Maya and Dolores. He chooses to take Maya to a friend for treatment instead of a doctor because he wanted to avoid personal embarrassment. He does not want anyone to know that his girlfriend physically attacked his daughter.
Even though Daddy Clidell operates in a similarly lowbrow society—among con men and gamblers—he exhibits unquestionable respect both for Maya and for himself. She perceives him as a man of strength and tenderness, the ideal combination according to her. Moreover, Daddy Clidell laughs proudly when people think that Maya is his biological daughter. He has no insecurities to hide and no superiority to flaunt. As a result, he gives Maya affection and respect, unlike Big Bailey. Maya considers Daddy Clidell the first real father she has ever had. Similarly, even though Vivian also abandons her children at different points in the novel, she nevertheless contrasts with Big Bailey at the end of the novel. Vivian may live a melodramatic life associating in unsavory circles with gamblers and con men, but she represents power and unflinching honesty. She possesses the good qualities found in Big Bailey, like a wonderful sense of humor and a love for fun, but she complements these with a strong conscience and a deep respect for herself, Bailey, and Maya. Especially in the final chapters, Maya shows how she listens to her mother’s wise words and sayings culled from her experiences.
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