I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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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 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 secondary motif of religion is evident in Chapter 18; the reader sees firsthand the importance of the worship experience to young Marguerite and to the tired workers who muster enough energy after a day in the fields to attend worship services. The reader—and Marguerite—are still left with the question, “How long?”