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

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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 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 her family. She is never able, however, to tell Bailey all about the incident because she always begins to laugh.

Racism is made very real in Chapter 16. When Miss Glory reminds Mrs. Cullinan that Marguerite’s name is not Mary, Mrs. Cullinan replies that the name is “too long. She’s Mary from now on.” Angelou explains that centuries of being called “niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks” had given every person she knew a horror of being called “anything that could be loosely construed as insulting.” Mrs. Cullinan did not think this child even deserved the effort of being called by name.

Mrs. Cullinan’s action results in conflict. For instance, Marguerite becomes angry when she hears Mrs. Cullinan talking about her and when Mrs. Cullinan “calls her out of her name.” Marguerite decides to get even with Mrs. Cullinan by breaking some of Mrs. Cullinan’s dishes.

Marguerite’s employer refuses to call Marguerite anything but Mary. Marguerite reports not knowing whether to laugh or cry; Marguerite’s anger prevents her from doing either. When she is at last able to carry out the plan to get herself fired, she is never able to describe it to Bailey: “each time I got to the part where she fell on the floor...

(The entire section is 677 words.)