The principal personage of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou, writing when she was in her late thirties. In the novel she assumes two personae. The voice of "Ritie" (a diminutive of Angelou's real first name, Marguerite) describes in sometimes poignant terms incidents in her childhood and adolescence. The other voice, the adult Maya's, is introspective, more objective, and less intimate. The adult voice of Maya makes general observations or editorializes, and provides epiphanies to many of the childhood incidents.
Angelou is the anima — the female part of a female personality — of the male-female, brother and sister, relationship in the novel. The other, male, part of her make-up — the animus — is represented by her brother Bailey's personality. Thus Bailey complements his sister's personality. He fails, however, to come to terms with his mother and feels ousted in an overly dominant feminine environment.
Angelou's grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, is the matriarchal head of the family. "Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion and 'her place.'" She is a symbol of strength, an Earth Mother, a figure who is good, kind, and protecting. Angelou calls her "Momma," and in fiction she is a "Madonna" figure, one who stands for love and hope. The beauty of Angelou's biological mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, "made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest." But she did not reject friendship with those in the rackets. Finding it too inconvenient to care for the children she helped spawn, she finds an excuse (a depressed Maya) to send Maya and her brother back to "Momma" in Stamps. As for Uncle Willie, Mrs. Henderson's other son, his pride and sensitivity, "a double-tiered barrier," enables him to maintain his dignity. Angelou's father, Bailey Johnson, lives in the fast lane. A "hipster" type, he shipped the kids to Mom (Mrs. Henderson) after a divorce from a few years of marriage.
Maya Johnson is a brilliant, sensitive young black woman with keen insight into her environment and the people in it. Her observations and her expressed feelings are so real that the reader begins to absorb her vivid if tragic universe. Early on in the book, she describes herself as "a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil." Her childhood dream is to wake up some day with light-blue eyes and long, straight blond hair.
Life in Stamps is timeless but not tedious. The days and seasons follow one another in orderly sequence as Maya helps in the store, attends school, play-acts with her brother Bailey Jr., listens to grown-up talk as neighbors gather in the store, and attends church services and church picnics (the latter usually with a sense of skeptical irony). Maya's mentor, the elegant Mrs. Rowers, introduces her to the world of literature and afternoon tea.
Mischief as well as irony is very much part of Maya's nature. When she takes a job as a maid in a white person's house, her employer's friends urge them to call her Mary, not Marguerite, deeming the latter too long a name for a little black girl. She manages to extricate herself from the unpleasant situation by plotting with Bailey to break her employer's favorite piece of bric-a-brac. Solitary and within herself, teased by schoolmates, Maya has few friends her own age, although she finally links up with another school pariah, Louise Kendricks.
The sudden departure from Stamps to St. Louis is traumatic at first. But when Maya meets her beautiful, lively, smart mother, she likes her immediately. It is a different world in St. Louis—one where her mother prospers by pursuing several careers—as a realtor, an entertainer, and a casino hostess. All would have been fine if Mr. Freeman, her mother's boyfriend, had not raped her. But after the hospitalization, the trial, and the trauma, Maya becomes a gloomy and silent child. Soon, her mother sends both Maya and Bailey back to Stamps and...
(The entire section is 1,772 words.)