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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Chapters 21–24 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1254

Chapter 21

Bailey had been initiating girls “into the mysteries of sex” in a tent behind the house for about six months when he met Joyce. She was four years older than Bailey (who was not quite eleven) and had come to Stamps to live with a widowed aunt. When he took Joyce into his tent, it quickly became apparent that she was more experienced than Bailey and was expecting actually to have sexual intercourse, rather than merely simulating the act with most of their clothes on, as Bailey had been doing with girls of his own age. Marguerite, who was keeping watch outside the tent, was alarmed by this development, but Bailey rapidly fell in love with Joyce.

A few months after she arrived in Stamps, Joyce disappeared without warning or explanation. Bailey lost interest in life, and Marguerite hated Joyce for abandoning him. Months later, when Joyce’s aunt came into the store and talked to Momma, they discovered that Joyce had run away with a railroad porter, whom she expected to marry. Bailey sourly remarked that she now had somebody “to do it to her all the time.”

Chapter 22

A storm was brewing, and Marguerite was looking forward to an evening reading Jane Eyre, when Mr. George Taylor came to call. Mr. Taylor had recently lost his wife and was welcomed all over town to take meals with various families. Momma and Uncle Willie assured him that they were glad he had come, and Mr. Taylor, after looking bleak and glassy, soon became more animated. He told them about his wife, Florida, saying that she had wanted to have children and had told him so just last night, although she had been dead for six months. He then launched into the type of narrative Marguerite most disliked: a ghost story.

Marguerite had not felt any strong emotion when Mrs. Taylor died, but Momma had insisted that they attend her funeral. Mr. Taylor had leapt up and collapsed during the eulogy, and Marguerite had been powerfully affected by the sight of Mrs. Taylor in her coffin. These events had made her even more reluctant to hear a story about Mrs. Taylor’s ghost. Momma, however, encouraged Mr. Taylor to speak. He related having woken in the night to see a fat baby angel and hear his wife’s voice moaning and saying that she wanted children. Uncle Willie and Momma kept suggesting that this vision had been a dream, which initially angered Mr. Taylor. However, after a while, their measured responses banished “the intoxication of doom.” Marguerite realized for the first time that Momma “was so good and righteous she could command the fretful spirits, as Jesus had commanded the sea.”

Chapter 23

The children in Stamps were anticipating high school and grammar school graduation. There was an almost palpable air of excitement, even among those who were not themselves graduating. Although Marguerite was only twelve years old, and graduating from the eighth grade, Angelou notes that “many teachers in Arkansas Negro schools had only that diploma and were licensed to impart wisdom.” She had achieved one of the highest places in her grade and was therefore to be one of the first called in the ceremony, for which Momma had made her a splendid new dress.

On the morning of the graduation ceremony, Bailey gave Marguerite a leather-bound volume of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, while Momma cooked a special breakfast and presented her with a Mickey Mouse watch. At the ceremony, the school principal gave a speech about Booker T. Washington, and a white man called...

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Edward Donleavy talked about the opportunities open to them. However, while Donleavy believed that white children could do and be anything, his examples of the aspirations suitable for Black boys—he did not even mention the girls—were all achievements in sports: basketball or boxing. For Marguerite, Donleavy’s words showed that she and the children around her were destined to be “maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.”

Marguerite was so incensed by Donleavy’s patronizing attitude that she had to be prompted to go and collect her diploma. The day was saved for her only by the valedictorian, a boy she admired, singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, an inspiring song known to all Black children and which she refers to as “the Negro National Anthem.”

Chapter 24

Having taken candy from the store for years, Marguerite was finally afflicted with two painful cavities. As there was no Black dentist in Stamps, Momma decided to take her to Dr. Lincoln, who owed Momma a favor. They went to the back door of Dr. Lincoln’s surgery, where Momma announced herself to a white girl as “Annie.” The humiliation of hearing Momma omit her surname was equal to the physical pain of the toothache for Marguerite.

Momma and Marguerite waited for over an hour, after which Dr. Lincoln came out and said that he did not treat Black people. Momma argued, pointing out that she had loaned him money when he needed it, but Dr. Lincoln said that he had repaid all the money and reiterated that it was his policy never to treat Black patients. Finally, he told her, “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”

Momma followed the dentist into his office, whereupon Marguerite imagined a spectacular showdown in which she turned Dr. Lincoln out of town and forbade him ever to practice dentistry again. However, when Momma finally emerged, she looked tired and took Marguerite to a Black dentist in Texarkana. She had charged the dentist a further $10 as interest on the loan because he behaved so badly, but Marguerite much preferred the version of events she had imagined, in which Momma had crushed the man.


The first two chapters in this section contrast with the second two in a way that is common throughout the book, though it is rarely so neatly demonstrated. Chapter 21 and chapter 22 deal with two of the most common tribulations of life: first love and bereavement. Life is hard for everyone, and heartbreak is an everyday experience at any stage of life. In chapter 23 and chapter 24, however, Marguerite confronts the specific problems encountered by Black people in a racist and racially segregated society. At first, the graduation ceremony promises to be a joyful occasion. The first paragraphs are filled with excitement. Then the white politician, Edward Donleavy, delivers a patronizing speech suggesting that, while white boys can be scientists, artists, or statesmen, Black boys should confine their interests to sports, and Black girls are not even worth mentioning. In the following chapter, Marguerite is in terrible pain from toothache, but the white dentist refuses to treat her, implying that Black people are lower than animals in his contemptuous dismissal.

In the latter case, Marguerite imagines Momma storming into the dentist’s office and forcing him to leave town. In fact, all Momma has done is to procure $10 for her granddaughter to be treated by a Black dentist in a nearby town. The graduation has a similar conclusion. The valedictorian sings a song which every Black child knows and which is the work of a great Black poet and his brother, a great Black composer. This partially restores the atmosphere of the graduation and represents a minor victory, too minor for Marguerite’s tastes, like the $10 Momma receives from the callous and racist dentist.


Chapters 17–20 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 25–28 Summary and Analysis