Summary of the Novel
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiography of Marguerite Johnson, later known as Maya Angelou. The book takes the reader from Marguerite’s arrival in Stamps, Arkansas, to the birth of her son.
Through the writer’s vivid portrayals of events, the reader experiences Marguerite’s insecurity, her love of family, her church and school experiences which were so important in her growing up, and her visits to her mother and father. On one of these visits to her mother’s, Marguerite is raped by her mother’s friend. The ultimate result of this violation is his death at the hands of Mother Dear’s brothers. Marguerite is mute for some time after this. (Some sources say she did not speak for five years.)
Marguerite describes in detail how she returns to Stamps and is at last able to make two friends: Mrs. Flowers and Louise Kendricks. As Marguerite matures she is able to observe the social order around her in Stamps. She describes the church picnic, the congregating of the neighbors in the Store to hear the fights on the radio, and the pride of the community in the eighth-grade graduation exercises. All the while, the young narrator is observing the class and caste system of the South.
It is after her brother encounters a man being dragged from the river that her grandmother takes her to California to live with her mother. Marguerite is impressed with how her grandmother, who has never before left the vicinity of Stamps, is able to function in a new social structure. Marguerite makes the reader aware of the class and caste system which exists in the West. It is when her father invites her to visit him in another town in California that she becomes aware of still another social structure.
Her father lives with Dolores Stockland, who becomes very angry when Marguerite goes with her father into Mexico and does not return until the next day. An argument ensues and Dolores cuts Marguerite. Marguerite’s father is ashamed and embarrassed by the incident and leaves Marguerite with friends; Marguerite runs away.
Marguerite spends her first night in a junkyard and wakes the next morning to find faces peering in the windows at her. She meets a gang of juveniles who live in the junked cars and who have their own code of conduct. Marguerite makes her home with them for a month and finds her insecurity dislodged. She at last calls her mother for plane fare home.
Marguerite breaks racial barriers in California when she secures employment as the first Black employee on the San Francisco streetcars. Even though she has found security with the junkyard gang, Marguerite has trouble dealing with her own sexuality and wonders if she is developing normally. After reading a book on lesbianism, she fears that she is lesbian. To satisfy her questions and to find out about her “normalcy” once and for all, Marguerite decides to have sex and try to work out a relationship with one of two brothers who live near her home. Three weeks later, with her questions still unanswered, Marguerite finds herself pregnant.
Marguerite keeps her secret from everyone but Bailey and manages to graduate from high school about three weeks before the birth of her son. The book ends with Marguerite accepting the care and support of the child she loves.
The most important theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the maturation of Marguerite and, to a lesser degree, the growth and development of Bailey. Both these characters are growing, changing, dynamic characters, in contrast to Mrs. Annie Henderson, their stable, caring grandmother who is a static character.
The Life and Work of Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, named Marguerite Johnson at birth, is the daughter of Vivian Baxter Johnson and Bailey Johnson, a doorman and naval dietitian. Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She had one brother, Bailey.
As children, Bailey and Marguerite moved from St. Louis to Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, to St. Louis and back to Stamps. After her eighth-grade graduation, Marguerite moved to San Francisco to live with her mother.
Marguerite became the first Black female ticket collector on the streetcars in San Francisco. She graduated from high school in California. At 16 she had her son there. The birth of her illegitimate son concludes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou states in Current Biography (1974) that this happy event is the best thing that ever happened to her.
Maya Angelou’s life has been an eventful one. She served in 1960–61 as Northern coordinator for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as a key aide to Malcolm X. She worked in Africa as associate editor of a Cairo English newsweekly and for the Ghanian Times and as a Pan-African soldier. Angelou acted in the TV series Roots and has written 10 books; she has received more than 30 honorary doctorates. She directed and wrote the script and music for the screen version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou served under President Jimmy Carter as a member of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, under President Gerald Ford on the American Revolution Bicentennial Advisory Council, and as a poet/participant at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In London the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children named its new facility the Maya Angelou Child Protection Team and Family Center.
Maya Angelou admits that she has done many things, but she sees herself first as a “Black American female writer.” (Essence, May 1992) The imposing, six-foot tall woman often works sixteen-hours a day when she is writing. Her talent has also been recognized by Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she is Reynolds Professor.
The autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings spans a period of time from 1931 until 1944. The realistic portrayal of Angelou’s life is set against the Depression and World War II. Her homes, the Store, and the church which figured prominently into her life are described in great detail. Her depiction of the socially and racially divided cities and towns of St. Louis, Stamps, and California help the reader to understand life in America—from the viewpoint of a “Southern Black girl”—during this time period. Because of her firsthand knowledge of life during this time and because of her honesty in recording the settings and the events in her life, reviewers have said that she has used “the clay of real life” in her writings. (Essence, May 1992)
Master List of Characters
Marguerite Johnson—The narrator and main character, she is three-years-old when the story begins and about sixteen when the story ends.
Bailey Johnson, Jr.—The brother of Marguerite, he is a year older than his sister.
Mrs. Annie Henderson—The grandmother of Marguerite and Bailey, she lives in Stamps.
Uncle Willie Johnson—Marguerite’s crippled uncle, Uncle Willie Johnson is the brother of Bailey Johnson, Jr., and the person for whom Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store is named.
Mr. Steward—A former sheriff, Mr. Steward pays the family a visit to tell “Willie he better lay low tonight.”
Mr. McElroy—Mr. McElroy lives next to the Store and sells patent medicine.
Reverend Howard Thomas—Reverend Thomas presides over a district that includes Stamps.
Sister Monroe—Sister Monroe is a church member who often “gets the spirit” and shouts during the service.
Reverend Taylor—Reverend Taylor is the pastor of the church Marguerite attends.
Deacon Jackson—A deacon, Mr. Jackson becomes involved in an emotional church scene with Sister Monroe.
Sister Willson—Sister Willson is chair of the usher board.
Mr. Murphy—The third husband of Mrs. Annie Henderson, Mr. Murphy comes to visit once while Marguerite is there.
Mr. Johnson—Mrs. Henderson’s first husband, Mr. Johnson is Marguerite’s grandfather.
Bailey Johnson, Sr.—Bailey is Mrs. Annie Henderson’s son and Marguerite’s father.
Vivian Baxter Johnson—Marguerite’s mother is Mother Dear to Bailey and Bibbi to friends.
Powhitetrash—Marguerite uses the word “Powhitetrash” to refer to the dirty, ill-mannered white people who live on Mrs. Henderson’s land and treat Mrs. Henderson, Uncle Willie, and Marguerite very rudely.
The Baxter Family—Vivian’s family consists of Grandmother Baxter and Vivian’s brothers (particularly Tutti, Ira, and Tom) and lives in St. Louis at first.
Mr. Freeman—Mr. Freeman is the live-in friend of Vivian, the children’s mother.
Pat Patterson—Pat Patterson offends Vivian and suffers the consequences.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers—Mrs. Flowers brings Marguerite to her Stamps home to visit and sets an example for her.
Viola Cullinan—Marguerite’s employer, Mrs. Cullinan treats Marguerite with contempt and will not even call Marguerite by her proper name.
Miss Glory—Miss Glory is the longtime employee of Mrs. Cullinan.
Kay Francis—Miss Francis is the movie star who looks like Vivian Baxter.
Brother Bishop, Miss Duncan and Miss Grace—These are the flat characters who attend the tent revival.
Joe Louis—Louis is the Brown Bomber, a champion boxer during the 1930s.
Louise Kendricks—Louise is Marguerite’s best friend.
Tommy Valdon—Tommy is the first “sweetheart” of Marguerite.
Miss Williams—Miss Williams is Marguerite’s seventh-grade teacher.
Joyce—Joyce is Bailey’s first sexual encounter.
Mrs. Goodman—Mrs. Goodman is a customer in the Store.
Mr. George Taylor—Mr. Taylor is a widower who visits and chills Marguerite with tales.
Miss Kirwin—Miss Kirwin is a California educator who influences Marguerite.
Daddy Clidell—Clidell is Mother’s friend who is kind to Marguerite.
Boarders and Underworld Characters (including Red Leg, Black)—These flat characters are a part of life in Daddy Clidell’s home.
Dolores Stockland—Dolores, the mistress of Marguerite’s father, knifes Marguerite.
Lee Arthur and Bootsie—These are two of the junkyard friends.
Marguerite’s Son and the Child’s Father—These characters are nameless.
Estimated Reading Time
The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute. Since each page has about 400 words on it, an average student would take about 2 minutes to read each page. The total reading time for the 246-page book would be about 8 hours. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s first autobiography, is a story of a child becoming an adolescent, a story of a victim who comes to realize that all people are, to some extent, victims, and a story of survival. It is a lyrical narrative—almost a prose poem in some places—in which the autobiographer’s voice is strong and musical, just as the title conjures up musical imagery.
Maya Angelou as a child is a displaced person, separated from her mother and father at the age of three and moved around almost as frequently as a chess piece. Her earliest memories are of Stamps, where she and her brother Bailey are raised by their grandmother, a woman of remarkable strength and limitless love for her grandchildren. This grandmother, known as Momma, provides security for Maya and Bailey and also offers a role model for the young girl, who is beginning to understand the role of victim to which black children—and especially black girls—are subjected.
Momma owns the general store in Stamps and is respected as a businesswoman, a citizen of the community, and an honest and straightforward person. She represents the qualities that will eventually define her granddaughter, and she demonstrates those qualities on a daily basis, most especially when dealing with members of the white community. In a significant incident, she reveals the ability to survive that her granddaughter will eventually develop herself.
(The entire section is 710 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Maya Angelou begins her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with reflections about growing up black and female during the Great Depression in the small, segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.
Following their parents’ divorce, Angelou, then three years old, moved to Stamps with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle Willie. Their home was the general store, which served as the secular center of the African American community in Stamps. Angelou’s memories of this store include weary farmworkers, the euphoria of Joe Louis’ successful prizefight, and a terrifying nocturnal Ku Klux Klan hunt.
Angelou also recollects lively African American church services, unpleasant interracial encounters, and childhood sexual experimentation. An avid love of reading led the young Angelou to African American writers, including the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, from whose verse Angelou borrows the title for her narrative.
Singing is heard in Angelou’s memories of her segregated Arkansas school. At their grade-school graduation ceremony, Angelou and her classmates counter the racism of a condescending white politician with a defiant singing of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” For Angelou this song becomes a celebration of the resistance of African Americans to the white establishment and a key to her identity as an African American poet.
Angelou spends portions of...
(The entire section is 358 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Marguerite and Bailey, Jr. are sent by their newly divorced parents to Stamps, Arkansas, when they are three and four, respectively, to live with their grandmother, Momma. Momma, a staid Christian woman, owns the William Johnson General Merchandise Store, which makes a solid living for her and her disabled son, Willie. In her no-nonsense way, she sets about raising her grandchildren to use their minds, mind their manners, and survive in the Depression-era South.
Marguerite and Bailey are bright children. They soon take pleasure in learning to read and to do their numbers. They also learn while still quite small to deal very carefully with white people. On more than one occasion the family faces a very real danger of a Ku Klux Klan atrocity. It is a given that black people are generally powerless against white people.
Marguerite watches her proud stoic grandmother deal with the “powhitetrash” children who sometimes come around the store, trying to goad Momma into some kind of undignified reaction. A group of poor white girls cavort for several minutes one time in front of Momma, who stands at the door of her store, softly humming a hymn. One girl, wearing no underwear, does a revealing handstand right in front of Momma, who does not miss a beat in her humming. When the girls finally tire of the game and go off, saying, “ Bye, Annie,” Momma, with her dignity intact, says good-bye to each one of them by name.
(The entire section is 885 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Preface: Summary and Analysis
Marguerite: the narrator, a “Southern Black girl”
Marguerite remembers an Easter service which is painful for her to recall. Her day is a terrible one from the time she puts on her “cut-down” Easter dress. During the Easter program Marguerite forgets her lines, trips on her way out of the church, and wets her pants. Marguerite escapes to her home with her wet clothes even though she knows she will be spanked for leaving the service. Still, she manages to feel joy because she is liberated from the service and because she feels a physical release from the pressure on her bladder.
Readers encounter many conflicts in the Preface which captivate their interest. A first conflict is character-against-society when Marguerite explains her dissatisfaction with her life. She dreams of wearing a beautiful dress and looking “like one of the sweet little white girls.” She longs to hear people saying, “‘forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were.”’ She imagines waking one day and finding her hair is long and blond. She decides that a wicked fairy has turned her into a “too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.”
A character-against-nature conflict occurs when Marguerite attempts to control her bladder during the service. She says, however, that “a green persimmon, or...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
Bailey Johnson, Jr.: Marguerite’s four-year-old brother
Mrs. Annie Henderson: Marguerite’s grandmother and a resident of Stamps, Arkansas
Chapter 1 tells of the arrival of Marguerite and Bailey at their grandmother’s after their parents’ divorce. Marguerite describes in detail the setting of Stamps, Arkansas, and specifically the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store. Through her eyes the reader sees the activities in the Store each day.
Since Marguerite is only three-years-old when the story begins, the reader knows that the narrator is remembering the events of an earlier time. Marguerite is a round character, one which is revealed in entirety to the reader—the reader knows all about Marguerite. Her thoughts, feelings, and reactions are all evident since Marguerite tells everything to her audience.
Angelou uses personification, or giving human characteristics to inanimate objects. For example, she tells us that “the town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming.” She uses connotation—a reference to something else—when she says that the field was “caterpillar green.” She uses a simile in “it [the town] closed in around us, as a real mother embraces a stranger’s child.”
The dialect is typical of Southerners during the Depression era. For example, one of the customers...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Chapter 2: Summary and Analysis
Uncle Willie: the son of Mrs. Annie Anderson and the uncle of Marguerite and Bailey.
In Chapter 2 Marguerite describes Uncle Willie in detail and also shares with the reader her “first white love”—William Shakespeare. Marguerite also tells how Uncle Willie listens to the children recite and threatens them against the cherry-red stove if they miss a fact.
Characterization is a prominent feature in Chapter 2, as Marguerite describes Uncle Willie in detail. “Uncle Willie used to sit, like a giant black Z (he had been crippled as a child) . . . ” Despite this, Uncle Willie pretends to himself and to others that he is not in fact lame.
Marguerite reveals much about the caste and class system in Stamps when she describes the way that Uncle Willie is approached by “our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men” treat “Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food” as “the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid.”
In Chapter 2, the children have already grown and matured from Chapter 1. Bailey is now six and Marguerite is five. The children have not just grown older; they have grown in their skills and abilities and their understanding of society.
(The entire section is 206 words.)
Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis
Mr. Steward: the former sheriff
In Chapter 3 Marguerite reveals her pleasure in working in the Store, always written with a capital S. Marguerite also describes the visit of Mr. Steward, the past sheriff of Stamps, to warn Uncle Willie to “lay low tonight.” Mr. Steward explains that some of the “boys” will be visiting because “a crazy nigger messed with a white lady today.” Marguerite tells how they conceal Uncle Willie in the vegetable bins in the Store and how he moans all through the night.
Conflicts are an important part of Chapter 3. Character-against-society conflict is apparent with the visit from Mr. Steward to tell Uncle Willie to hide from the Klan. The tense racial situation in Depression-era Stamps is evident when Marguerite describes how Uncle Willie and “every other Black man . . . would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings” when the Klan rode.
A conflict also occurs between Mr. Steward and Marguerite. Marguerite remarks that she “would be unable to say anything in his behalf.” She again makes the reader aware of the caste and class system in the rural South and the volatile emotions associated with the system.
Another conflict is one that Marguerite imposes upon herself in the Store. She tries to measure the flour, mash, meal, sugar, or corn exactly right the first time she puts it on the scale. If...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapter 4: Summary and Analysis
Mr. McElroy: lives in the big rambling house next to the Store
Marguerite presents a portrait of Mr. McElroy, who lives next to the Store and sells patent medicines. She also discusses her relationship with Bailey, who was the greatest person in the world and her protector when adults said unkind things to her. Marguerite depicts two customs of Stamps: canning and curing, and the delicious meals from the smokehouse, the shelves, and the garden. An important part of the chapter is the description of segregation in Stamps; in fact, the segregation is so complete that in the 1930s “most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.” Marguerite recalls that she “couldn’t force myself to think of them [whites] as people . . . People were those who lived on my side of town.”
In Chapter 4, Bailey pits himself against those who speak unkindly to Marguerite. For example, when Mrs. Coleman, or anyone, comments upon the features of Marguerite, Bailey immediately comes to her defense. Bailey, in an oily voice, insults Mrs. Coleman—or whoever heaps impolite comments upon Marguerite—by asking if her son is better; when Mrs. Coleman asks what he is sick from, Bailey would answer with a straight face, “From the Uglies.”
Marguerite must control her laughter at Bailey’s antics. She finds it necessary to “hold my laugh, bite my...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Chapter 5: Summary and Analysis
Powhitetrash: poor, dirty, ill-mannered white children who live on Mrs. Henderson’s land and antagonize her
Mrs. Henderson demands cleanliness and manners from her grandchildren. These habits are foreign to the powhitetrash who live on Mrs. Henderson’s land. On the afternoon in question, Marguerite has just completed sweeping the yard and has made a design in the dirt. Mrs. Henderson looks admiringly at the design and sees the powhitetrash approaching. Mrs. Henderson sends Marguerite inside and faces the children alone. They laugh at her and imitate her, and then one of the girls stands on her head and reveals that she has no underpants. Through it all Mrs. Henderson sings hymns. As they leave, she says goodbye to each girl by name; Marguerite describes her grandmother’s face as shining as she looks at her. Marguerite sweeps the yard again and this time makes designs of concentric hearts with a piercing arrow.
Chapter 5 is fraught with conflict as the powhitetrash children directly confront Mrs. Henderson. The children mock her and taunt her. For instance, when one tries to imitate her, another says, “Naw, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pooched out enough.” The children do not recognize Mrs. Henderson as a human being because of her color, an expression of the caste system in rural Stamps.
Mrs. Henderson refuses to become agitated when the...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Reverend Howard Thomas: the presiding elder
Reverend Taylor: the pastor of the church
Sister Monroe: a church member who often “gets the spirit”
Deacon Jackson: a church member who gets involved in a church scene
Sister Willson: in charge of the ushers and gets involved in the scene
Chapter 6 describes both the visits of the Reverend Howard Thomas to the home of Mrs. Henderson and the humorous events within a special church service. Marguerite and Bailey dislike the visits of Reverend Thomas because he eats the best parts of the chicken at Sunday dinner. At one of the church services when Reverend Thomas visits Reverend Taylor’s church, Sister Monroe “gets the spirit” and attacks Reverend Taylor; all the while she screams, “Preach it.” Deacon Jackson and Sister Willson join the fray as they try to control Sister Monroe. Reverend Thomas manages to outstep her, but she finally hits him and his teeth fly out. When Marguerite and Bailey become hysterical with laughter, Uncle Willie takes them outside and gives them the whipping of their lives. For weeks after, Bailey would try to get Marguerite to laugh again by whispering, “Preach it!”
The children are maturing and assuming more responsibility, but they still often misbehave and are treated like children. For instance, Uncle Willie confronts and punishes the...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
Chapter 7: Summary and Analysis
Mr. Johnson: Mrs. Henderson’s first husband and the grandfather of Marguerite
Mr. Henderson: Mrs. Annie Henderson’s second husband
Mr. Murphy: Mrs. Henderson’s third husband
Judge: makes “a gaffe calling a Negro woman Mrs. . . . ”
Accused: hides behind Mrs. Henderson’s chiffarobe
Chapter 7 introduces the reader to Mrs. Henderson’s three husbands—Mr. Johnson, Mr. Henderson, and Mr. Murphy. Marguerite tells the story of the judge who asks for the witness who hid the accused behind her chiffarobe; not knowing that “a woman who owned a store . . . would turn out to be colored,” he asks for Mrs. Henderson. Mrs. Henderson turns out to be the only woman in Stamps referred to as “Mrs.” by a white person.
To enhance her writing, Angelou employs stylistic devices. There is connotation in the simile “wore a snap-brim hat like George Raft.” The reader would have to know the George Raft of movie-fame to understand the connotation in this phrase. Imagery helps the reader visualize the actions depicted in the chapter; for instance, “she laid down her handbag and slowly folded her handkerchief.” The idiom is used in “The whites tickled their funny bones.”
The theme of maturation is evident in Chapter 7 as Marguerite, still young and innocent, depicts the segregated world of Stamps to the reader...
(The entire section is 222 words.)
Chapter 8: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 is a description of the caste system in Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s. Marguerite gives her views of the Depression, the actions of the people of Stamps, Mrs. Henderson, and the welfare agencies. She describes in detail how her grandmother works out a system of trade at the Store for the free commodities secured by area residents. Marguerite also tells about the Christmas gifts that arrive from their parents and the heartbreak that comes after they open them; until this time the children had not allowed themselves to think about why their parents had sent them away. The children tear the stuffing out of the doll, but they save the tea set in case their parents return.
Marguerite and Bailey have matured to the point that they are beginning to question—but not understand—why their parents sent them to Stamps. When the Christmas gifts arrive, they do not express the happiness that often accompanies gifts and presents. Mrs. Henderson threatens to send the gifts back to their parents. “A wretched feeling of being torn engulfed me. I wanted to scream, ‘Yes. Tell him to take them back.’ But I didn’t move.”
Marguerite is better able to express her feelings about the caste system in Stamps: “A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white.” Maya Angelou helps the reader to realize just how prejudiced Stamps was when she says that “the whites in...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis
Bailey Henderson, Sr.: the father of Marguerite and Bailey and the son of Mrs. Henderson
Vivian Baxter: the mother of the children; known as Mother Dear to Bailey, Jr.
Bailey Henderson, Sr., comes to visit for a short while in Stamps. When he leaves, he takes Bailey and Marguerite with him. The children think that they are going to California, but he takes them to St. Louis, where their mother lives. Bailey Henderson, Sr., goes on to California, but he leaves the children with their mother. Marguerite thinks her mother is the most beautiful woman she has ever seen; Bailey falls instantly in love with her.
Marguerite is maturing and beginning to develop a poor self-concept. Marguerite finds it hard to wait for the children in town to find out her father is here. She wants them to know how handsome and wonderful he is, but when she thinks of being compared with him, she fears she will come up wanting. Bailey Henderson, Sr., makes fun of Marguerite on occasion and causes Marguerite to be pitted against him. Marguerite feels her father watching her; she feels so inferior to him that she wishes she “could grow small like Tiny Tim.”
Marguerite struggles to accept herself and her body even though she feels inferior to others. When she meets her mother again, she is acutely aware of her own shortcomings. “I knew immediately why she sent me away. She...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
Chapter 10: Summary and Analysis
Grandmother Baxter: Marguerite’s “nearly white” grandmother in St. Louis
Tutti, Tom, and Ira Baxter: Mother Dear’s brothers and Marguerite’s uncles
Pat Patterson: curses Vivian and is attacked by Vivian and her brothers
Mr. Freeman: Mother Dear’s (Vivian’s) live-in boyfriend
Chapter 10 describes the new people, places, and schoolrooms of St. Louis. The children hear family stories they have never heard before; for instance, they hear the story of how Mother (“Bibbi”) is cursed by Pat Patterson and how the brothers find and hold him while “Bibbi” hits him with a club.
The social structure of St. Louis is a marked contrast to Stamps, Arkansas. Marguerite realizes early in their acquaintance that her grandmother is a precinct captain with power. Marguerite is able to deduce through the stories of the tough brothers that the positions they hold in the town have been bought through their actions.
The children are getting along well in their new school and accept their mother’s live-in boyfriend as their father.
Conflict is a way of life in St. Louis. For instance, Bibbi herself brings physical violence against Pat Patterson. Character-against-society conflict is most evident as the children try to adapt to a new way of living; Bailey, in particular, has to learn a way of “infighting, Bailey...
(The entire section is 350 words.)
Chapter 11: Summary and Analysis
Marguerite begins to spend her hours out of school with books and radio programs. She rarely sees her mother; if Mother comes home before the children are in bed, Mother sends them to their rooms so she can spend time with Mr. Freeman. Marguerite says that she feels that she has again arrived in a place where she has not “come to stay.”
Both children begin to have problems: Bailey begins to stutter and Marguerite begins to have bad dreams. Marguerite goes into the bed of her mother (and Mr. Freeman) for comfort when the dreams occur.
On one of the occasions when Marguerite comes to their bed and Vivian goes to work, Mr. Freeman holds Marguerite and masturbates. Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey if Marguerite ever tells what happened. Marguerite does not understand what has transpired. She only knows that it was good to be held.
Marguerite withdraws even more. She takes out a library card and begins to spend more time reading and less time with Bailey.
Marguerite becomes very unsure of herself. She fears that Mr. Freeman will kill Bailey. She wants to ask what has happened but does not because she “knew when to keep quiet around adults.” Even more conflict is apparent as Mr. Freeman tries to hide his actions from others and tells Marguerite never to tell “what they did.”
Angelou helps the reader experience what Marguerite saw and felt: “He held me so...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
Chapter 12: Summary and Analysis
One Saturday in late spring while Vivian is at work and Bailey is playing baseball, Mr. Freeman rapes Marguerite. After the rape, he bathes Marguerite and tells her never to tell what happened or he will kill Bailey. He tells the eight-year-old to go to the library. The pain is so intense that Marguerite does not stay long. She returns home and goes immediately to bed.
Vivian and Mr. Freeman quarrel during the night. The next morning Mr. Freeman leaves. Marguerite is unable to leave her bed. A doctor is called, but he does not discover the reason that Marguerite is ill. Through a haze, Marguerite realizes that Mother and Bailey are caring for her. The chapter concludes with Marguerite’s stained panties falling at her mother’s feet.
The rape in Chapter 12 brings conflict and grief to Marguerite along with the end of Marguerite’s innocence. Marguerite states that she could not “sit long on the hard seats in the library (they had been constructed for children).” She hints at the end of her childhood through this reference to the benches.
Marguerite struggles not to scream during the rape since Mr. Freeman has told her he will kill her if she makes any noise; her young, innocent body has to yield to his adult attack. Later Marguerite struggles with herself not to tell anyone that her body has been ravaged by Mr. Freeman’s abuse for fear that Mr. Freeman will kill Bailey.
(The entire section is 246 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
Marguerite is hospitalized—a not unpleasant experience for her. She relishes the attention given to her by the adults around her.
When Mr. Freeman goes to trial, Marguerite agrees to testify for two reasons: Bailey says it would prevent another little girl from being hurt and he promises Marguerite that Mr. Freeman will not be able to kill him. Marguerite does not testify about the times that Mr. Freeman held her and masturbated; this causes her guilt.
Mr. Freeman is given one year and one day, but for some reason he is released that afternoon. The police come to the home of Grandmother Baxter and tell her that Mr. Freeman “has been found dead on the lot behind the slaughterhouse.” It is clear to even young Marguerite which St. Louis family was powerful enough to secure Mr. Freeman’s release and which family was capable of murdering him.
Marguerite copes with the rape and all that has happened by refusing to talk. She believes if she talks with “anyone else that person might die too.” At first, “they” understood her silence. Next, the adults try punishment to get her to talk. Finally they banish Marguerite and Bailey to Stamps.
Through characterization, the reader knows and cares for Marguerite and her family. Person-against-person conflict is first evident when Marguerite testifies against Mr. Freeman; it occurs also when the uncles pit themselves against him....
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Chapter 14: Summary and Analysis
Marguerite and Bailey return to Stamps, Arkansas, after the trial; Marguerite finds the “barrenness of Stamps was exactly what I wanted.” The community receives the children well: the people listen to Bailey’s stories and seem to accept Marguerite’s muteness. Marguerite concludes that she “was not so much forgiven as I was understood.”
Bailey plays “on the country folks’ need for diversion” and attacks them with words and tall tales—despite Mrs. Henderson’s reminder to tell the truth. As Marguerite tries to cope with what happened to her, she tries to express her feelings and thoughts: “Sounds came to me dully, as if people were speaking through their handkerchiefs . . . Colors weren’t true . . . I began to worry about my sanity.”
Bailey is growing and maturing in body and in self-confidence. He is resentful, however, that he must return to the South. The reader feels, however, that Marguerite is waiting quietly for her physical and emotional wounds to heal; her maturation seems to be temporarily at a standstill. She feels understood in the Southern community and feels the barrenness of the small Southern town is just what she needs.
(The entire section is 192 words.)
Chapter 15: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Bertha Flowers: “the aristocrat of Black Stamps” and “the lady who threw me my first life line”
Marguerite sops around the house “like an old biscuit” until she is thrown a life line by Mrs. Flowers. Mrs. Flowers asks Marguerite to carry her groceries home. Margaret is thrilled that she has been asked to go and changes her clothes before they leave. When Mrs. Flowers comments on how professionally sewn the dress is, Mrs. Henderson makes Marguerite remove it so that Mrs. Flowers can see the seams. Marguerite is humiliated. Mrs. Flowers seems to understand Marguerite’s feelings. She compliments Mrs. Henderson’s sewing and tells Marguerite to dress again.
When Marguerite reaches Mrs. Flowers’ home with the parcels, Mrs. Flowers invites her inside. She gives Marguerite cookies and challenges Marguerite with her “lessons for living.” Before Marguerite returns to the Store, Mrs. Flowers lends her a book of poetry and asks her to recite at their next session.
When Marguerite arrives home, Mrs. Henderson hears her take the Lord’s name in vain by saying, “By the way.” Mrs. Henderson explains that “Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light,’ and anyone who says ‘by the way’ is really saying ‘by Jesus’ or ‘by God.” Marguerite is whipped and reminded that whitefolks use “by the way” often. Mrs. Henderson explains the mouths of white people...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Chapter 16: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Viola Cullinan: Marguerite’s employer
Miss Glory: the cook who also works for Miss Cullinan
Chapter 16 describes the preparations for life given girls in the South. “While white girls learned to waltz and sit gracefully with a tea cup balanced . . . we were lagging behind, learning the mid-Victorian values.” Another preparation for life given to Black Southern girls is working in the kitchen or home of a white family. Ten-year-old Marguerite enrolls in this “finishing school” when she becomes an employee of Mrs. Cullinan.
Marguerite overhears her employer and guest talking about her. During the course of the conversation, she hears the guest remark that “her name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.” Marguerite becomes very angry and feels her “lunch in her mouth a second time.” The next day, Mrs. Cullinan calls her by the shortened name. Marguerite explained that “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.”
Marguerite becomes angry. She longs to quit the job, but she knows that her grandmother will not allow her to do so. She and Bailey devise a plan to get Marguerite fired; Marguerite breaks some of Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite dishes. Mrs. Cullinan falls on the floor and cries.
After Marguerite has carried out the plan, she is able to return to the Store and...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
Chapter 17: Summary and Analysis
Kay Francis: a movie star who reminds Bailey of his mother
Miz Jenkins: a neighbor who speaks to Mrs. Henderson and Marguerite as they walk to meet Bailey
Chapter 17 describes Saturday nights at Marguerite’s home and particularly the Saturday night when Bailey does not come home on time. The reason for his lateness is that he has sat through a movie again to see more of Kay Francis, a movie star who reminds him of his mother. Uncle Willie whips Bailey with a belt because of his curfew violation. Sometime later Marguerite and Bailey are able to go together to see a film with Kay Francis. On the return, Bailey tears across the tracks just as a train passes. Marguerite is relieved to find him well after the train passes. The chapter ends in humor when Marguerite tells the reader that one year later Bailey does catch a train—and gets stranded in Baton Rouge.
Bailey is maturing—and becoming more belligerent—but it is obvious that he misses his mother terribly. Bailey opposes his grandmother and his Uncle Willie by arriving home late and giving no reason for his lateness. His silence is a type of confrontation. Bailey refuses to cry out in pain when Uncle Willie whips his naked skin with a belt.
The two children engage in a conflict when they both attend a movie starring Kay Francis. “I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
Chapter 18: Summary and Analysis
Brother Stewart and Bishop, Mrs. Duncan, Sister Williams, Miss Grace: flat characters who appear in Chapter 18 to let the reader meet some cotton-pickers, revival team members, and worshipers at the tent revival
Chapter 18 describes in detail the cotton-pickers in the Store at the end of the day and the same cotton-pickers (and others) at the tent revival that night. The revival services in the cloth tent include members of all denominations. Included in the services are prayers, hymns, shouters, a sermon and a revolutionary action: a minister who takes in members for other churches. The collection comes last in the service and the revival members give from their small means. As the worshipers make their way home, they pass a honky-tonk. Both groups ask, “How long, oh God?”
Irony is present when the revival-goers pass a honky-tonk filled with merry-makers. Both groups, however, are victims of the discrimination of the South. They both ask, “How long, oh God?” Marguerite is very angry toward the system and toward the cotton-pickers who “have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen” and who struggle to survive a pitiful existence. Marguerite yearns “to tell them to stand up and ‘assume the posture of a man.’”
A more mature Marguerite questions the lifestyles of those about her and the quiet acceptance of the hard work they endure. A...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
Chapter 19: Summary and Analysis
Joe Louis: the boxer, known as the Brown Bomber, who would become the Heavyweight Champion of the World
Chapter 19 describes in detail the congregating of the community around the radio in the Store to listen to boxing matches. Men, women, and children come to listen and to buy soft drinks; in case of a particularly bloody fight, they also buy peanut patties and Baby Ruths. When Joe Louis becomes the Heavyweight Champion of the World, some people do not return home but stay overnight in town; they are afraid to be on a country road at night when Joe Louis has proved “we were the strongest people in the world.”
A maturing Marguerite is becoming more aware of the harshness of racial discrimination and the fear of the Black community toward whites. A Black fighter dares to compete for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World. As Joe Louis represents his people and wins, his triumph is for blacks everywhere.
Dialect plays an important part in Chapter 19. The announcer shouts, “The winnah.” He mentions “jabs,” “a left cross,” and difficulty in keeping “his block up.” A simile is used in the phrase “as a black sky is streaked with lightning.”
(The entire section is 205 words.)
Chapter 20: Summary and Analysis
Louise Kendricks: the “prettiest female in Stamps, next to Miss Flowers,” and Marguerite’s first friend
Tommy Valdon: Marguerite’s suitor
Miss Williams: Marguerite’s seventh-grade teacher
Helen Gray: a recipient of a Valentine and a very minor, flat character
At the annual summer picnic fish fry Marguerite makes her first close, girl friend: Louise Kendricks. Marguerite also has her first interest in a boy; Tommy Valdon not only sends Marguerite a love note, but he also sends her a valentine which the teacher (Miss Williams) reads aloud to the whole class. Although Marguerite determines to say something clever to him, she can never do anything but giggle when he is around.
When the chapter opens, the reader finds Marguerite avoiding others. Marguerite plans to bring a book to read to the picnic, but her grandmother will not allow it. At the picnic Marguerite wanders away by herself. It is at this point that Louise finds her and a friendship ensues with Louise.
The theme of maturation is vital to the chapter; Marguerite says that in her new friendship “after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl.” The reader realizes that Marguerite is at last able to find joy after her return to Stamps. A new friendship makes all the difference in Marguerite’s life. The pleasure of Louise’s company makes...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Chapter 21: Summary and Analysis
Joyce: Bailey’s first love outside the family
Mrs. Goodman: a customer in the Store who gives the reader information about the whereabouts of Joyce
Chapter 21 describes the sexual experiments of Bailey. While Marguerite serves as the lookout, Bailey takes girls into a tent he constructed in the back yard. Bailey finally has sexual relations with Joyce, a new girl in the community. Marguerite explains that Joyce was Bailey’s first love outside the family.
Mrs. Goodman, at the end of the chapter, tells Momma that Joyce has left Stamps with one of those railroad porters. Bailey is at first despondent, but he is finally able to summarize the situation by saying, “She’s got someone to do it to her all the time now.”
The theme of maturation is again very evident in Chapter 21; it seems, however, that it is more Bailey than Marguerite who is physically maturing. Bailey is struggling to gain sexual knowledge from the local girls. He finally develops a sexual relationship with Joyce, the newcomer to Stamps.
Imagery helps the reader visualize the new character Joyce. For example, Marguerite says that Joyce walked “as if she were carrying a load of wood.” Dialect is evident; for example, when Mrs. Goodman tells what has happened to Joyce, Momma says, “Do, Lord.” The simile is used to describe Bailey’s initial reaction to...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapter 22: Summary and Analysis
George Taylor: widower of Mrs. Florida Taylor and a visitor to the homes in the area
Chapter 22 describes the rainy night when Mr. Taylor appears unexpectedly at the door. Mr. Taylor had been taking meals all over town since the death of his wife. He begins to tell them about dreams of his deceased wife.
Marguerite listens to the tales and recalls her fear at Mrs. Taylor’s funeral. When her grandmother asks her to go into the kitchen, Marguerite finds she is frightened of even going into the kitchen alone.
Marguerite lays a pallet for Mr. Taylor in Uncle Willie’s room.
In this chapter, Angelou’s vivid imagery helps us visualize Mrs. Taylor’s funeral. The reader can see the “black-dressed usher” and smell the “sickening black clothes worn in summer weather.” Marguerite finds the entire funeral difficult to bear, especially when she must view Mrs. Taylor in the coffin. This vivid depiction also enables the reader to learn more about funeral customs in Stamps.
(The entire section is 171 words.)
Chapter 23: Summary and Analysis
The principal of Lafayette County Training School
Mr. Edward Donleavy: a man running for election and the white speaker at the graduation ceremonies for Marguerite’s class
Henry Reed: the valedictorian
Chapter 23 describes the excitement of the community members who have friends and family in graduation ceremonies at Lafayette County Training School. Marguerite is particularly excited because this is her eighth-grade graduation.
During the ceremony Mr. Edward Donleavy, a white man who is running for election, comes on the stage. The white man who accompanies Mr. Donleavy to the stage actually takes the seat of the principal. Mr. Donleavy promises a paved playing field in exchange for their vote. He tells of the accomplishments of white schools in the area. After his speech Mr. Donleavy leaves the ceremony.
Sadness and shame fill the room. The participants feel that they have lost control of their ceremony and their lives. Henry Reed, the valedictorian, at last rallies the group; he leads them in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” As a result, “We were on top again.”
Mr. Donleavy seems to have certain preconceived notions about the group he is addressing. He sees them as sports figures and not scholars. The reward he offers in exchange for their vote—a paved playing field—is something the white schools already have....
(The entire section is 361 words.)
Chapter 24: Summary and Analysis
The nurse of Dentist Lincoln: described by Mrs. Henderson as “snippity”
Dr. Lincoln: a dentist in Stamps
Dr. Baker: a dentist in Texarkana, Arkansas
Chapter 24 describes in detail the pain that Marguerite experiences with her tooth and the prejudice she experiences at the office of Dr. Lincoln. After Marguerite and Mrs. Henderson wait over an hour in the sun, Dr. Lincoln refuses to see Marguerite. He says, “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.” After Mrs. Henderson “backed up inside herself for a few minutes,” Mrs. Henderson walks inside the office without knocking. Later Marguerite and her grandmother make a trip all the way to Texarkana, Arkansas, to get help for the tooth.
Mrs. Henderson later tells Uncle Willie what happened when she went inside the office again. She asked Dr. Lincoln for the money he owed her. Dr. Lincoln explained that he had repaid the money some time ago, but Mrs. Henderson insisted that there was now interest; she took ten dollars for the trip to Texarkana as full payment. “Even though by rights he was paid up before, I figger, he gonna be that kind of nasty, he gonna have to pay for it.”
Marguerite, however, prefers her fanciful version of what happened inside the office when Mrs. Henderson returned. Marguerite’s version includes her grandmother’s growing to a height of 10 feet,...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Chapter 25: Summary and Analysis
Mr. Bubba: a Black man
Nameless white man: man who taunts Bailey
Chapter 25 describes in detail how Bailey sees a “colorless” person pulled from the river; Bailey is forced to help carry the body and is threatened with being locked in the calaboose. Bailey is horrified at what he has seen. It is at this time that Mrs. Henderson decides that they are going on a trip to California.
Bailey is maturing and as a young, virile male is a threat to the caste system in the eyes of many white men; in this chapter one white male reminds him of “his place.”
The event profoundly affects Bailey. He tries to tell his family what he has seen and Marguerite notes that he talks so fast that he forgets to stutter. Marguerite tells the reader that Bailey’s “little face was no longer black but a dirty, colorless gray” after he sees the dead man.
Imagery helps the reader visualize what Bailey saw: “he had no color at all. He was bloated like a ball.” A simile gives additional information on the dead body; for example, Bailey says that the dead man was “all rolled up like a mummy” Marguerite uses personification to describe Bailey’s reactions to the sights he saw. For example, “his soul just crawled behind his heart”; this was Bailey’s way of coping.
Bailey is beginning to try to unravel the “enigma that young...
(The entire section is 340 words.)
Chapter 26: Summary and Analysis
Daddy Clidell: a successful businessman who moves the family to San Francisco and becomes Marguerite’s stepfather
Chapter 26 describes Momma and Marguerite’s trip to and arrival in California. The chapter tells of the reunion of Vivian with her children and of the reunion of Grandmother Baxter with the children after their trip to San Francisco. The chapter also tells the story of Vivian Baxter’s shooting her business partner. It was while they were in California that World War II began and Mother married Daddy Clidell.
Vivian Baxter openly confronts and shoots her business partner because he has not been “shouldering his portion of the responsibility” and because he curses her. The violence and conflict that was a way of life in St. Louis have followed them to California.
Imagery helps the reader visualize the shooting: “he reached her and flung both arms around her neck, dragging her to the floor.”
Marguerite develops her way of coping with the move to California, which she describes to her readers. Marguerite states that the “intensity with which young people live demands that they ‘blank out’ as often as possible. I didn’t actually think about facing Mother until the last day of our journey.”
The physical growth of Marguerite is evident when she says that her mother was “smaller than memory would have her.”...
(The entire section is 275 words.)
Chapter 28: Summary and Analysis
Miss Kirwin: Marguerite’s teacher in San Francisco
Chapter 28 describes the education of Marguerite in the public schools and at the California Labor School. She describes the public schools as often violent; fights were commonplace.
Marguerite receives a scholarship to the California Labor School. Marguerite has one good experience there; she develops a new allegiance in her life: Miss Kirwin and her information. This teacher brings her knowledge to Marguerite and makes an impression on Marguerite for the rest of her life. Years later Marguerite finds the school is on the “House Un-American Activities list of subversive organizations.”
The setting and characters in California are important parts of Chapter 28. The reader experiences firsthand the social groups in the high school near Marguerite’s home and at George Washington High School and the teachers at the California Labor School.
Marguerite attends the high school near her home and is thrown into a group of “young ladies . . . faster, brasher, meaner and more prejudiced than any I had met at Lafayette County Training School.” Negro and Mexican students carry knives to the public school to use on the white girls with “no shield of fearlessness.” The conflict for Marguerite is somewhat resolved when she goes to the California Labor School.
Angelou helps the reader...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
Chapter 29: Summary and Analysis
Red Leg: a member of the Black underground and a visitor to the Clidell home
This chapter describes the new life with Mother and Daddy Clidell. The boarders in Daddy Clidell’s house are presented briefly to the reader as characters who do not speak. Daddy Clidell is exposed to the reader in more detail in this chapter. Through Marguerite’s description Clidell Jackson emerges as a real person who brings the Black underground into the big house. Mr. Red Leg, a member of the Black underground, is one visitor to the home who is very kind to Marguerite. Marguerite relates a story he tells her about outwitting a white man.
The prejudice that is obvious in Chapter 29 is that of Blacks against whites. Marguerite hears many stories from the Black underground. In the tales, “the Black man . . . won out every time over the powerful, arrogant white.” The individual characters themselves are symbols of the entire Black underground and the white race; the triumph of a Black character over a greedy white person is symbolic of the underground’s longed-for triumph over their white oppressors.
When Marguerite learns of Vivian’s relationship with Mr. Clidell, she prepares herself to “accept Daddy Clidell as one more faceless name added to Mother’s roster of conquests.” She finds, however, that “his character beckoned and elicited admiration.”
(The entire section is 280 words.)
Chapter 30: Summary and Analysis
Dolores Stockland: Daddy’s new girlfriend
Chapter 30 takes place in San Francisco, Southern California where Marguerite’s father now lives, Mexico, and then in Southern California again. At her father’s invitation Marguerite leaves San Francisco and her mother to visit her father in southern California. There Marguerite meets Dolores, her father’s new girlfriend, for the first time. Marguerite and Dolores’s relationship is a strained one from the first meeting. Dolores is surprised to find Bailey’s daughter is almost as old as she; Marguerite is surprised that her father’s girlfriend is very young. The two young women find their habits are very different and that living under one roof makes for problems.
One day Bailey, Sr., takes Marguerite with him to Mexico for a night of drinking and carousing. Because her father is intoxicated, Marguerite, who has never driven before, ends up having to drive home and wrecks the car. Bailey gets her out of the difficulty, but the incident causes hard feelings between father and daughter.
Marguerite feels very resentful toward her father. She does not think he recognizes her accomplishment in driving and she questions how he was able to recover so quickly from his drunkenness. In addition, conflict has existed between Dolores and Marguerite since the first time that they meet. Marguerite fails to be the child...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
Chapter 31: Summary and Analysis
In this chapter, Angelou describes the quarrel between Dolores and Marguerite’s father which occurs after Bailey, Sr., and Marguerite return home from Mexico. When the angry father leaves the trailer to visit neighbors, Marguerite feels sorry for Dolores and tries to make up with her. Dolores will not make up and calls Vivian a whore; Marguerite slaps Dolores. During the scuffle that follows, Dolores cuts Marguerite.
When Dolores goes after her with a hammer, Marguerite locks herself in the car. The neighbors, including Marguerite’s father, hear the disturbance and take Dolores inside the trailer to quiet her. Marguerite longs to go inside to show her father her wound, but she is reluctant to be seen with blood on her clothes because of her “feminine training.” When Bailey, Sr., sits down in the car with Marguerite, he sees the blood and takes her to a neighbor’s for treatment and for shelter.
The next morning Marguerite considers running away. She prepares some food to take with her. When the neighbor’s door closes and locks behind her, Marguerite realizes she cannot go back.
Bailey, Sr., often leaves Dolores at home and goes to Mexico to drink, “go off with his women,” and have a good time. Dolores is left alone to fume while he is away. Dolores and Marguerite have had problems from the beginning, but in this chapter the two engage in verbal and physical conflict. As a...
(The entire section is 321 words.)
Chapter 32: Summary and Analysis
Bootsie: the acknowledged leader of the junkyard gang
Lee Arthur: the only boy who ran with the junkyard gang and lived at home
Juan: the gang member who gives Marguerite a black lace handkerchief
After she runs away from the neighbor’s home, Marguerite finds an abandoned car in which she sleeps that night. The next morning when she awakes, she sees a group of young faces peering in at her. The faces are those of a gang of young people who live in the junked cars. Marguerite lives with the gang for one month.
The month is not a bad one. Marguerite learns to drive, dance, and curse. In addition, she learns tolerance and develops some security.
At the end of the month she calls her mother and asks for fare home. Before she leaves she receives two gifts: a black lace handkerchief from Juan and a friendship ring from a girl in the gang. After she flies to her mother, Marguerite says, “I was at home, again.”
The reader sees a great deal of growth in Marguerite in this chapter: “After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself.”; “During the month that I spent in the yard I learned to drive . . . to curse and to dance”; and “The unquestioning acceptance by my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity.”
Another motif which emerges in this chapter is that of...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Chapter 33: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 33 describes Marguerite’s return to her mother. Marguerite is relieved upon arriving there. There are fun times when Marguerite, Vivian, and Bailey attend recreational dances. Bailey and his mother, however, are not getting along. Marguerite says they are entangled in what she calls the Oedipal skein: a love/power struggle.
Finally one night, Bailey comes in late. When Mother Dear asks Bailey if it is eleven o’clock, Bailey tells her it is one. Mother Dear says there is only one man, Daddy Clidell, in the family. A quarrel ensues. Bailey leaves home and goes to live in a hotel. Marguerite visits him there. When they have said all they can say, Marguerite leaves him alone.
The development and growth of Bailey and Marguerite are quite evident in Chapter 33. Marguerite recognizes that she is growing. “I reasoned that I had given up some youth for knowledge.” She also recognizes the progress toward maturation of Bailey: “Bailey was much older too. Even years older than I had become.” At another point Marguerite explains that “Bailey was sixteen, small for his age, bright for any and hopelessly in love with Mother Dear.” Marguerite expresses her feelings toward maturation: “ growing up was not the painless process one would have thought it to be.” Bailey, too, expresses his feelings toward maturity. He says that there comes a “time in every man’s life when he must push off...
(The entire section is 247 words.)
Chapter 34: Summary and Analysis
A receptionist: works at the employment office of the Market Street Railway Company in San Francisco
A street car conductorette: treats Marguerite with less than courtesy
This chapter describes in detail 15-year-old Marguerite’s search for a job when her room begins to be as cheerful as a dungeon. She rules out many jobs and finally settles on streetcar conductorette. Vivian tells her that “They don’t accept colored people on streetcars,” but she encourages Marguerite to try for the job if she wants it. Even after a rebuke from the receptionist, Marguerite does not give up; she continues to apply and calls on Negro organizations to help. Marguerite at last is hired—just why she never knows. Marguerite becomes the first Negro conductorette on the San Francisco streetcars.
Marguerite returns to school after one semester and begins to cut classes. She and her mother agree to be honest with each other: Marguerite will tell her mother when she plans to cut classes. Marguerite may cut classes if her school work is up to standard and if she has no tests scheduled. Vivian explains that she does not want a white woman to tell her about her own daughter nor does she want to be placed in the position of lying to a white woman because Marguerite was not “woman enough to speak up.”
Angelou states that the American Negro female adult is usually a formidable character;...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Chapter 35: Summary and Analysis
Young man from down the street: the nameless father of Marguerite’s child
Chapter 35 describes in detail Marguerite’s difficulty in accepting her sexuality. She reads a book on lesbianism and confuses the term lesbianism with hermaphrodite. She looks at her large hands and feet and at her undeveloped breasts and becomes convinced that she is a lesbian. She notes the development of some folds of skin and approaches her mother with her concerns. Her mother reassures her with the help of a dictionary.
When Marguerite sees an acquaintance undressing, she again has doubts about her femininity; she mistakes the “esthetic sense of beauty and the pure emotion of envy” for homosexuality. She wants “to be a woman, but that seemed to be a world to which I was to be eternally refused entrance.”
At last to assure herself that she is normal, Marguerite asks a handsome boy up the street if he would like to have “a sexual intercourse” with her. The result of this one-time affair is Marguerite’s pregnancy.
Even surrounding the sex act there is misunderstanding and conflict—not reassurance and understanding. Marguerite’s friend “thought I was giving him something, and the fact of the matter was that it was my intention to take something from him.” After the brief encounter, Marguerite’s main concern is how to get home quickly. “He may...
(The entire section is 365 words.)
Chapter 36: Summary and Analysis
In Chapter 36 Marguerite describes her emotions upon realizing she is pregnant. She takes little pleasure in the fact at first and staggers under the weight of it. She writes to Bailey, who advises her not to tell her mother about the pregnancy and to continue school. Marguerite listens. She does not lie about her pregnancy, but she does not tell others. She finds that school takes on new magic for her. Bailey comes home about halfway through her pregnancy.
During Marguerite’s sixth month, Vivian goes to Alaska to open a night club. Two days after her graduation, Marguerite leaves a note for Daddy Clidell in which she tells him about the baby. She spends the next two weeks buying clothes for the baby, visiting the doctor and enjoying the event.
Marguerite delivers a healthy boy, but she describes her fears of holding the child. When he is three weeks old, her mother places the infant in bed with her. Her mother awakes her later and shows her the infant asleep at her side.
The continuing motif of maturation is again evident in this final chapter as Marguerite delivers her baby. She expresses her feelings for this accomplishment in this way: “No one had bought him for me. No one had helped me endure the sickly gray months. I had had help in the child’s conception, but no one could deny that I had had an immaculate pregnancy.”
Part of her difficulty is that Marguerite must...
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