Last Updated on August 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953
One day, Bailey came into the store looking visibly shocked. After a while, he asked Uncle Willie “what colored people had done to white people in the first place.” He then said that he had seen some men fish a corpse out of a pond. A white man had gone over to the dead man, rolled him over on his stomach, and grinned. The white man had then called Bailey to help put the dead man in a calaboose, laughing and joking over his death.
Soon after this incident, Momma decided to take the children to California. The preparations, however, took a long time, as train tickets were expensive, and Momma decided to make new clothes for Marguerite and Bailey. Eventually, Momma and Marguerite left, having arranged for Bailey to follow a month later. Marguerite was sorry to leave Bailey and Louise but would not miss her adult friend, Mrs. Flowers, “for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.”
Marguerite did not think about meeting her mother until the last day of her journey. She wondered whether Mr. Freeman would be mentioned and what she was expected to say. Her mother was smaller than she remembered but just as beautiful. They moved into an apartment in Los Angeles, but then her mother returned to San Francisco, where she normally lived, to arrange accommodation for them there. Momma stayed with Marguerite, and later with Bailey, in Los Angeles. Angelou reflects that she did not appreciate at the time just how adaptable Momma was in acclimatizing herself to life in California, when she had never before been more than fifty miles from her birthplace.
When Momma returned to Stamps, Marguerite, Bailey, and their mother moved into a dingy apartment in Oakland. It was very much like St. Louis, and even Grandmother Baxter and her sons Tommy and Billy had moved there.
Their mother tried to entertain Marguerite and Bailey in a typically unmaternal fashion, once throwing a party for them in the middle of the night. She was an irresistibly amusing personality, but she was without mercy or compassion. Shortly before the children arrived from Arkansas, she had shot her business partner in an argument. A short while later, she married a successful businessman called Daddy Clidell, and they moved to San Francisco, while Grandmother Baxter and her sons stayed in Oakland.
At the beginning of World War II, there was a silent revolution in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, as all the Japanese businesses disappeared. Many were taken over by Black people, and “The Japanese area became San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months.” There was little sympathy for the Japanese among the new inhabitants, and no one in Marguerite’s circle ever mentioned them. The “impermanence of life in wartime” lessened her sense of strangeness and displacement, since no one else seemed to belong there, either. This made her feel free and courageous.
Many San Franciscans regarded their city as a utopian society, free from racism. However, Marguerite and her circle knew they were wrong. A popular story told of a white San Franciscan matron refusing to sit next to a Black man in a streetcar, saying that “she would not sit beside a draft dodger who was a Negro as well.” She said that her son was fighting in Iwo Jima. The man turned to show her the empty sleeve of his coat and replied, “Then ask your son to look around for my arm, which I left over there.”
Although Marguerite achieved good grades, she was initially uncomfortable at school, where the other girls were more confident and worldly than herself. She was then transferred to George Washington High School, where she was one of only three Black students among many white teenagers from affluent families. This worried her, but she found a brilliant teacher in Miss Kirwin, who taught civics and current events. Miss Kirwin treated all her students with the same brisk politeness and seemed to have become a teacher for the pure love of knowledge. At the age of fourteen, Marguerite was awarded a scholarship to the California Labor School and also took evening classes in drama and dance.
The majority of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings deals with life in Stamps, Arkansas. By chapter 25, Marguerite has only been away from Stamps once since the age of three, and this sojourn in St. Louis proved to be a disaster, permanently traumatizing her and returning her to Momma a morose and silent child. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that she looks forward to life in another big city with some apprehension. This time, however, the challenges Marguerite faces are more conventional and expected, such as adjusting to new schools and an unfamiliar living environment. Life with her mother can still be alarming and carries an undercurrent of violence. It is not long since her mother shot a man, and two of her “mean” uncles from St. Louis have turned up in Oakland, along with Grandmother Baxter, but none of this compares with her St. Louis ordeal.
In considering the plight of the Japanese during World War II, Angelou raises the problem of intersectionality before the term itself became widespread. The Japanese are now being oppressed as Black people have historically been oppressed in the United States, but this does not excite any sympathy in the Black community. The Black people who are able to take over Japanese businesses are simply delighted by their new opportunities to build wealth and join the capitalist class. They never mention the Japanese or what has happened to them.
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