Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial

Chapters 17–20 Summary and Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Chapter 17

On Saturdays, Bailey would usually go to the movies. One such Saturday he was late returning, and Momma was obviously worried, as such an absence could easily mean calamity for a young Black boy out on his own. Eventually, at Uncle Willie’s suggestion, she and Marguerite went out to meet Bailey, walking down the road past concerned neighbors who asked if anything was wrong. They found Bailey trudging along the road with his hands in his pockets, but he gave no explanation for his tardiness.

When they returned home, Uncle Willie whipped Bailey, but he still offered no explanation or apology. Then, one evening, he told his sister that he had seen their mother, going on to explain that it was actually a white film star named Kay Francis whom he had seen at the movies and who looked just like their mother. He had stayed late in town to see the movie a second time.

The next time a Kay Francis film was shown in town, Marguerite went with Bailey to see it. She was delighted to see someone who looked so much like their mother starring in a film, but Bailey was downcast again. On the way home, he ran across the train tracks just before the freight train reached the crossing, and his sister thought he had met a grisly death. When the train had passed, however, he was leaning on a pole on the other side of the tracks and berated her for reacting so emotionally. A year later, Bailey did manage to jump on board a freight train, but instead of finding their mother in St. Louis, he was stranded for two weeks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Chapter 18

Marguerite recalls the cotton-pickers returning to the store at the end of a hard day’s work. Both they and Momma thanked God for the cotton-pickers’ having survived another day, but Marguerite “thought them all hateful to allow themselves to be worked like oxen.” Instead of going home to rest, many of them went to a revival meeting.

The meeting was held in a tent pitched in a cotton field, though it seemed to Marguerite somehow blasphemous to worship in a tent. All the different Christian sects in the town—Baptist, Episcopalian, and Methodist—met with the raucous members of the Church of God in Christ at the revival. The service was much more animated than any Marguerite usually heard in church, and the sermon, on charity, was punctuated with joyful shouts and affirmations. The cotton-pickers who had been so tired earlier in the evening took on new life. Their elation lasted for some time after the revival meeting, but as they came back into town, “the godly people dropped their heads and conversation ceased.” By the time they returned home, they had also returned to the reality of their dreary, dispossessed lives.

Chapter 19

The store was packed with people listening to the radio. They were listening to commentary on a boxing match between Joe Louis and a white boxer. When the contender had Louis against the ropes, even Marguerite felt the wider implications for Black people everywhere. “My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree.” Finally, however, Louis won the fight, remaining heavyweight champion of the world. There was an atmosphere of celebration in the store, with everyone drinking sodas and eating candy bars. However, there was some apprehension as well. Those who lived far away made arrangements to stay in town for the night, mindful of what it would mean for them to encounter some aggressive white people “on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.”

Chapter 20

The summer picnic fish fry was the biggest outdoor event of the year, incorporating churches, professional and social groups, and all the children. There was a huge variety of food: fish, meat, pickles, fruit, vegetables, and all kinds of different cakes and puddings. Marguerite, however, did not feel like participating in the general merriment. She sat by herself and was presently joined by Louise Hendricks, another girl of ten, also “escaping the gay spirit.” The two girls quickly became friends, even learning to communicate in a secret language more sophisticated than the Pig Latin employed by the other children.

One day at school, another girl gave Marguerite a note. It was from a boy called Tommy Valdon, asking her to be his valentine. She felt threatened and confused, wondering “what evil dirty things” the boy had in mind. She showed the note to Louise, who said that Tommy wanted her to be “his love,” a word with toxic associations for Marguerite, who tore up the note. A couple of days later, the day before Valentine’s Day, the children made valentine cards in class. Tommy Valdon wrote in his card to Marguerite that he had seen her tear up his letter, but she would always be his valentine. Marguerite was reassured by this but found herself unable to talk to him anyway.


This series of comparatively light vignettes shows various aspects of social life in Stamps. However, neither personal nor collective trauma is ever far from the surface. The depth of pain felt by both Marguerite and Bailey is evident in Bailey’s reaction to seeing a woman who looks like his mother on the movie screen, and in Marguerite’s suspicion of a boy who sends her a love note before Valentine’s Day. Even though Marguerite does not refer directly to her rape by Mr. Freeman in recounting this episode, it becomes clear that she is weighed down with negative associations that will make it difficult to form relationships.

Collective trauma appears in the hard lives of the cotton-pickers, which they briefly escape during the revival meeting, and in their emotional investment in Joe Louis’s victory. Although chapter 19, which describes the community’s reaction to the boxing match, is comparatively short, it is memorable for the vivid and insistent description of what the contest means for Black people all over the United States, who feel it as nothing less than a verdict on their race. The threat of violence from the white inhabitants at the end of the chapter shows that they are not alone in placing such emphasis on a boxing match. The white community also views such sporting competitions in racial terms and is humiliated by Joe Louis’s preeminent position as world heavyweight champion.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapters 13–16 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 21–24 Summary and Analysis