Summary: Chapters 27 & 28

Maya comments on the changes that occur in San Francisco after the U.S. enters World War II. Provincial Black migrants, not dissimilar to the people Maya knew in Stamps, flow into the city, working side by side with illiterate whites in the defense industry. The Black workers replace the Japanese, who have been unjustly interned by the U.S. government in camps. Maya notes that no one ever speaks about the Japanese displacement. She says the Black community unconsciously pays little attention to the Japanese because Black men and women focus on advancing themselves in the face of white prejudice.

The constant aura of change and displacement in wartime San Francisco makes Maya feel at home for the first time in her life. Upon her entrance into school, she automatically gets promoted a grade and later transfers to a white school where she is one of only three Black students. The white students appear aggressive and better educated. Maya remembers only one teacher from school, Miss Kirwin, who never played favorites and never treated Maya differently for being Black. When she is fourteen, Maya receives a scholarship to the California Labor School where she studies dance and drama.

Summary: Chapter 29

The owner of numerous apartment buildings and pool halls, Daddy Clidell becomes the only true father figure Maya ever knows. She loves his strength and his tenderness. He is dignified, but not haughty. He has no inferiority complex about receiving little education, but he also lacks the arrogance usually associated with men of great accomplishment. Daddy Clidell introduces Maya to his con-men friends who have learned to swindle bigoted whites. They once conned a racist white man from Tulsa who had a history of cheating Black people into paying $40,000 for a piece of property that did not exist. Maya cannot regard the con men as criminals because she says the deck has been stacked against them from the start anyway. Ethics, she notes, depends upon necessity and are therefore different in the Black community.

Summary: Chapter 30

Big Bailey invites Maya to spend the summer with him and his girlfriend, Dolores. Dolores and Maya exchange letters and anticipate incorrectly each other’s physical appearance. Both Dolores and Maya are shocked when they meet for the first time. Big Bailey has promised to marry Dolores, but he keeps postponing the wedding plans. Much to Maya’s surprise, they live in a low-class mobile home. Nevertheless, Dolores tries to maintain the home in prim-and-proper style, and Maya’s messy nature disturbs Dolores from the beginning. Big Bailey watches the mutual discomfort between Maya and Dolores with amusement.

A fluent speaker of Spanish and an avid chef both by trade and in the home, Big Bailey makes frequent trips to Mexico supposedly to buy groceries. One day Big Bailey invites Maya on one of his shopping trips, inciting Dolores’s jealousy. During the trip, he jokes with a guard by offering Maya to him as a wife. He drives past the border towns and stops outside Ensenada. Women, men, and children greet him warmly. Big Bailey becomes a different person. He relaxes and stops putting on airs. Maya, who knows a bit of Spanish from school, begins to enjoy herself, but when she cannot find her father later in the evening, she becomes frightened and sits alone in the car, waiting for him. Eventually he staggers out drunk and passes out in the car. Maya drives fifty miles back to the border even though she has never driven a car before, let alone one with a clutch. She has a minor accident at the checkpoint. Big Bailey regains consciousness and settles the matter before driving the rest of the way home. He is neither surprised nor angry about the accident. He does not seem surprised that Maya could drive, and Maya dislikes the fact that he does not appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. They ride home in silence.

Summary: Chapter 31

After returning home, Maya overhears an argument between Dolores and Big Bailey. Dolores feels that Maya has come between them. Big Bailey leaves the house in a huff, leaving Dolores sobbing alone. Maya approaches Dolores and tells her that she never meant to come between them. Maya feels strong and honorable doing her good deed, but Dolores rebuffs Maya’s peaceful gesture and insults her, calling her mother, Vivian, a whore. Furious, Maya tells Dolores she is going to slap her and then does so. Dolores retaliates and Maya realizes that Dolores has stabbed her with scissors. Bleeding, Maya runs out of the house and locks herself in her father’s car. Big Bailey hears Dolores screaming and returns to investigate. He takes Dolores inside the house then drives Maya, who feels empowered by the events, to a friend’s house, where a woman bandages Maya’s wound. Afterward, he drives her to the home of another friend, where she spends the night. Big Bailey visits her at noon the next day and gives her some money, promising to return later that evening. Dreading having to face her father’s friends, Maya packs some food and leaves. She cannot return to Vivian, however, because she would never be able to hide her wound. Telling Vivian would only precipitate trouble between Vivian and Big Bailey, and Maya guiltily remembers Mr. Freeman’s death all too clearly.

Analysis: Chapters 27–31

San Francisco represents an entirely different world from the rural South. Maya attends an unsegregated school. Her education becomes more varied with the addition of drama and dance to her studies. As opposed to the monotony of life in the South, San Francisco undergoes constant change, especially due to the upheaval of the war. Similar to the Great Migration in the East, the defense industry’s factories went into full swing in California during the war, and they employed willing Black people and white people alike, especially since the Japanese population had been moved unjustly to internment camps. This harrowing scene of constant displacement becomes, somewhat ironically, the first place where Maya feels a sense of belonging, giving her a new boldness and an awareness of herself. Maya has never felt that she belongs anywhere before, and the constant scene of changing faces in wartime San Francisco—the cyclical wave of newcomers—wards off her own sense of alienation and isolation.

Read more about Maya’s move to San Francisco and her sense of displacement.

Maya’s descriptions of a multiracial apartment building and an unsegregated school might lead one to think that racial relations were not as tense as they were in the South, but she takes care to explain that this was not the case. The outer face of San Francisco did not show the tumult within. Rural whites brought their prejudices with them to the city. Rural Black people came to the city with their distrust of white people, cultivated through years of negative experiences. In the South, Black Americans and poor whites lived and worked on unequal, opposite sides of the racial divide. In San Francisco, they worked side by side in the war industry.

Read more about the author and the background of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

In San Francisco, Maya encounters a more brash form of resistance to racial inequality. Whereas Momma thought it sinful yet necessary to insist that Dr. Lincoln pay ten dollars in interest when she had not asked for it initially, Daddy Clidell’s friends lie and cheat to make $40,000 off white men. Momma’s quiet rebellions were replaced by the financially rewarding methods of Daddy Clidell’s friends, who catered to racial stereotypes in order to lure racist whites into their con games. They learned to turn white prejudice into a liability for whites. Despite the difference between Momma and the con-men’s methods, Maya shows that in both cases the ethical standard is based on necessity and justifies the means used to produce change. The standard of ethics differs for the Black community because if people cannot compete equally in society, they must find ways to advance by manipulating the system. Fair play ceased to have moral value when the rules of the game proved unfair. For the most part, the cotton-field laborers in Stamps accepted their difficult existence with resignation. Their resistance came in the form of personal empowerment and psychological stamina. The wartime generation, however, gained a sense of entitlement and wielded its creative powers to act upon it.

Read more about Black peoples’ resistance to racism and the many forms it takes.

Nearly every scene in these chapters illustrates Maya’s blossoming awareness of, and her love and respect for, herself. Maya’s emboldened sense of self shines forth in her impulsive decision to drive the car back to the U.S. from Mexico. Even though she has an accident, she says that she felt better than at any other time in her life. Maya is so confident in herself and proud of her achievement that she declares that she did not even need her father’s praise at first, even though she becomes angry when he continues to ignore her accomplishment. When Big Bailey asks Maya about her opinion of Dolores, Maya remarks upon Dolores’s pettiness and says that Dolores does not like her based upon her physical appearance. After overhearing the argument between Big Bailey and Dolores, Maya feels heroic and merciful when she tries to console Dolores. Maya has changed from a self-conscious and nervous girl to a defiant young woman, perhaps remaking herself in the image of the strong women who have influenced her. Indeed, besides the obvious parallels to Momma’s dignified nature, Maya acts very much like Vivian, particularly when she warns Dolores before slapping her in the same way that Vivian warned her partner before shooting him.

Read more about Maya’s relationship with Big Bailey compares with her relationship with Vivian.

In these chapters, Maya compares Big Bailey’s lack of paternal graces with Daddy Clidell’s strength as a father figure. Maya’s description of Big Bailey’s reaction to the confrontation and the injury hints at sarcasm and shows that she considers Big Bailey to be utterly selfish, even if he comes across as a likable character. He chooses to take Maya to a friend for treatment of her wound instead of a doctor because he wants to avoid personal embarrassment. He does not directly ask Maya to keep quiet about the incident, but he implies that she should do so, explaining how a scandal could damage his reputation. As if speaking for Big Bailey but with a melodramatic flare, Maya asks the reader rhetorically, “Could I imagine the scandal if people found out that his, Bailey Johnson’s, daughter had been cut by his lady friend?” She ironically exaggerates the response to her question by saying that all Black people in the city would hang their heads in shame if Big Bailey’s troubles became known publicly. Daddy Clidell, on the other hand, shows his pride 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, and she considers him the first real father figure in her life.