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, 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.