I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou recounts the story of her life up to the birth of her child. Though she faces many hardships in her life, including being raped and living in a junkyard, she's able to find love and happiness as a mother.

  • A young Maya Angelou, then known as Marguerite Johnson, is raped by a friend of her mother's. This results in Marguerite being mute for five years.

  • Marguerite moves to San Francisco, where she makes history as the first black employee of the San Francisco streetcars.

  • In California, she begins to explore her sexuality and quickly becomes pregnant. At age 16, she gives birth to a son—an event Angelou describes as the best moment of her life.


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.

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.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Three young white girls come to Momma’s property to taunt Momma through various antics, including one of the rudest acts possible in the South of the 1930’s: calling an adult by her first name. Throughout this series of insults, Momma does not react to the girls and, instead, stands on the porch, smiling and humming a hymn. While the granddaughter is outraged by this incident, wanting to confront the girls, the grandmother remains impervious and unwilling to demean herself by responding to her attackers—except when they leave, at which point she courteously bids them farewell, calling each by her first name preceded by “Miz.” The young Angelou comes to realize that Momma had won the battle by rising above the pettiness and rudeness of her inferiors. She was superior, and she had survived. She had also taught her granddaughter a lesson for all time.

Most lessons, however, need to be learned and relearned, and so Angelou faces that uphill battle when, at the age of eight, she is displaced again, this time to be returned to her mother in St. Louis. Whereas Stamps represents security and orderliness, St. Louis symbolizes its opposites. The most dramatic example of this insecure, disorderly, frightening world is the rape of eight-year-old Maya by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Confused and terrified by this act and the subsequent murder of Freeman—a murder that the child mistakenly thinks she has caused—Angelou becomes a voluntary mute and lives in a world of silence for nearly five years. She is healed by Bertha Flowers, a woman in Stamps, to which Maya returns. Flowers extends friendship to the mute Maya, a friendship that beckons the young girl to leave her self-imposed silence and embrace a new world of words, poems, songs, and a journal that chronicles this new stage in her life.

Moving to Oakland and then San Francisco in 1941, at the age of thirteen, Maya rejoins her mother and deals with dislocation and displacement still again. At this point in her life, however, she is maturing and learning that the role of victim, while still a role to which she is assigned, is also a role played by others—blacks and whites. She learns that the human challenge is to deal with, protest against, and rise above the trap of being victimized and exploited. In the final scene of the novel, Angelou is not merely a young woman coming to this realization for herself; she is a young mother who has just borne a son and who is therefore struggling to see how she can be responsible not only for herself but also for another. The book ends with this sense of mutual responsibility and mutual survival: Mother and child know why the caged bird sings, and they will sing their song together.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 narrative with her mother in St. Louis and in California. She has a wild visit to Mexico with her father and is even a homeless runaway for a time. As a girl in St. Louis, Angelou is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Following his trial and mysterious death, Angelou suffers a period of trauma and muteness. Later, an adolescent Angelou struggles with her sexual identity, fears that she is a lesbian, and eventually initiates an unsatisfactory heterosexual encounter, from which she becomes pregnant.

Angelou matures into a self-assured and proud young woman. During World War II, she overcomes racial barriers to become one of the first African American female streetcar conductors in San Francisco. Surviving the uncertainties of an unwanted pregnancy, Angelou optimistically faces her future as an unwed mother and as an African American woman.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

When Marguerite is six, her father comes to Stamps to visit and to take her and Bailey to St. Louis to stay with their mother. Both children are stunned to discover that the parents they assumed were dead are in fact alive. Bailey, Jr. falls in love at first sight with his beautiful, vivacious mother. Marguerite, more reserved, holds back her feeling until she is sure that the beautiful creature truly accepts her smart but very plain daughter.

In St. Louis, Marguerite and Bailey meet Grandmother and Grandfather Baxter and learn what it means to live almost like a white family. Grandmother Baxter is a precinct captain in St. Louis politics and has considerable clout. Her three strapping sons, who are as mean as snakes, are as menacing as Grandmother Baxter’s political power. This brings the family a wary and widespread respect unfamiliar to Marguerite.

While in St. Louis, Marguerite, at age eight, is raped by her mother’s lover, Mr. Freeman. When her mother finds out—Marguerite tries to hide it because Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey, Jr. if she tells—Mr. Freeman is arrested and tried. Although convicted and sentenced to a year and a day, he is released on the same day. Later that same day, he is “found dead on the lot behind the slaughterhouse.” Marguerite’s reaction to his killing is to believe that her talking to and about others is dangerous, so she decides not to speak to anyone except Bailey, for fear that whomever she talks to or about will die. Her continued silence over a period of time finally so exasperates her family that she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps.

Back in Stamps, Marguerite’s continued silence is eventually breached by Miss Bertha Flowers, an acquaintance of Momma. She entices Marguerite to read literary works aloud and to memorize and recite poetry. Marguerite eventually regains her self-esteem. She is able to put her St. Louis experience in perspective: She is not the bad and dangerous person she thinks she is.

By the time Marguerite graduates from the eighth grade, she has acquired her first real friend, Louise Kendricks. Bailey has his first sexual relationship with an older girl, who teaches him to steal from Momma’s store and who ultimately runs off to marry a railroad man.

Momma decides that Marguerite and Bailey, now in their teens, should go to live with their parents, who both live in California. World War II has started, and black folks are moving into California neighborhoods recently vacated by interned Japanese Americans. Marguerite and Bailey adapt well to their new life. She spends a summer in Southern California with her father. He takes her on an overnight trip to Mexico, which causes a fight between Marguerite and his fiancé. Marguerite runs away and for a month lives in a junkyard with other homeless children. She finally returns to her mother’s home, none the worse for her experiences.

Bailey becomes so “mannish” that his mother orders him to leave her house. When he does, Marguerite begins to feel the need to be more independent. She gets a job, becoming the first African American conductorette on a San Francisco streetcar. School loses much of its charm, but she recognizes the need to finish high school.

At this time, also, Marguerite begins to worry about her femininity. Her body has few of the contours of a sixteen-year-old. She begins to think she might be a lesbian. To prove to herself that she is not, she seduces a neighbor boy and gets pregnant. No one is aware, though, even as she graduates from high school with only about a month before the baby is due. She finally tells her mother about the impending birth. Her family rallies around her and she gives birth to a son.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter Summary and Analysis

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Preface: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 2: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 4: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 7: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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....

(The entire section is 222 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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.


(The entire section is 323 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 10: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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.”...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 15: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 16: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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 entire section is 677 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 17: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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....

(The entire section is 332 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 18: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 19: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 20: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 21: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 22: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 23: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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....

(The entire section is 361 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 24: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 25: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 26: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 28: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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 entire section is 328 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 29: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 30: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 32: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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 entire section is 247 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 34: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Chapter 35: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 365 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 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...

(The entire section is 363 words.)