I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Form and Content

Maya Angelou

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In this first of five volumes of autobiography, Maya Angelou tells the story of her life from age three, when her divorcing parents sent her and her brother to live with their maternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, to age sixteen, when, reunited with her mother in San Francisco, she gave birth to her son. Thus her story begins with semi-orphanhood and ends with motherhood. Interpreting her quest for freedom and self-affirmation as representative of that of many African Americans and American women—especially black American women—she presents incidents from her life that illustrate conditions faced by many persons. In her case, these conditions result, after much struggle, in a moment and message of hope.

Angelou begins her narrative with a painful incident that she does not date but that seems appropriate to age six or seven. In a church recitation, Maya cannot bring herself to remember the lines of an Easter poem beyond the first two, which seem to her to express her constant state of temporariness as a displaced orphan and humiliated outcast. Her dream of being beautiful, understood, and accepted—all of which she has imagined in terms of being white—is shattered, and her mind is occupied with thoughts of persecution, impending death, and imperative self-restraint. She feels about to burst; her means of release, the socially unacceptable one of urinating in her pants, merely reinforces her predicament.

After this introduction, Angelou turns to her arrival in Stamps at age three and proceeds by chronicling her emotional development, with reflection upon the implications of her experiences for understanding racism, sexism, and the general human condition. Her story is divided into four parts that take place in three settings: in Stamps with her grandmother (whom she called “Momma”) and Uncle Willie, from age three through seven; in St. Louis with her mother and her mother’s parents, brothers, and boyfriend, while she was eight; back in Stamps from age nine to thirteen; and in California with her mother, to age sixteen. Her brother was her constant companion during all but the last year.

The Johnsons in Stamps and the Baxters in St. Louis were relatively well-off black families, featuring strong and influential women. In Stamps, Momma owned properties that she rented to poor whites and owned and operated the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, which served as a lay center for the black community. Her family attended the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The sensitive, curious, and thoughtful Maya was in a position to observe a wide range of black experiences, roles, character types, and patterns of expression. She tells, for example, of bone-weary cotton pickers caught in economic enslavement within the general impoverishment of African Americans; a threat to Uncle Willie’s life by the Ku Klux Klan; the complete segregation in Stamps, with its resulting ignorance and prejudice on the part of both whites and African Americans; a confrontation between Momma and some racially insulting children of her tenants; and the antics of enthused parishioners during services, in contrast to Momma’s more reserved role and behavior.

For Maya, all of this was happening in the context of protection by Momma’s loving and authoritative competence and Bailey’s loving companionship. Family life in the store included disciplined study of arithmetic; leisurely reading of novels, poetry, and Shakespeare; and lessons on deportment and avoidance of trouble with whites.

Taken suddenly at age eight to live in St. Louis, Maya found her mother, whom she had known only as someone who had abandoned her and who probably was dead, to be a wonder of light-skinned beauty and hurricane energy, in constant social demand. Grandmother Baxter, whose features would not identify her as black, had connections with the St. Louis underworld, with the police, and with local politicians, and her uncles were the terror of the black community. Experiencing neglect by her mother, Maya fought against considering St. Louis her home but nevertheless suffered nightmares (Bailey developed a stutter). She felt sorry for Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend, who suffered similar neglect; when he began to abuse her sexually, an abuse at first accompanied by gestures of affection, she fantasized that at last she had found her real father. At his trial for rape, she denied any earlier contact; when Freeman, briefly out of jail, was kicked to death, she believed that her lie had caused his death and that her speaking might bring death to others. She stopped talking, except to Bailey, and when the Baxters could no longer tolerate what they took to be her impudence, they sent her and Bailey back to Stamps.

Back in a community environment of quiet resignation, Maya could relax, but for a year she did not talk, and she suffered from memory loss and dulled senses. Then Momma introduced her to Bertha Flowers, a beautiful and educated black woman who brought Maya out of her cocoon by giving her special attention that focused on love of the human voice in the recitation of literature. By age ten, Maya had gained sufficient self-esteem not only to converse normally but also to work in a white woman’s home and, furthermore, to retaliate when that woman made a racist assault upon her name. Shortly thereafter, she met a girl like herself, with whom she was finally able to be girlish and to share speculations about romance.

In Stamps, however, Maya and Bailey were again surrounded by racists. Even their religious experiences, in church, revival tent, and home, focused on the community’s and Momma’s teachings about inequality, persecution, and justice. As the children grew older, they increasingly came under attack. When Maya was graduated from the eighth grade, a white speaker made it clear that the graduates had no realistic intellectual ambitions. When Momma desperately took Maya to a white dentist to whom Momma had given a loan, he viciously turned them away. Then, when fourteen-year-old Bailey was ordered by a white man to help carry the corpse of a lynched man into the jail, Momma decided that the children must rejoin their mother, now living in San Francisco.

In California, Maya found her mother just as beautiful and active, but more attentive; the man she had married made a good stepfather, and life in the city, with its fluidity and diversity, was exactly to Maya’s liking. She performed well in school and took evening classes in drama and dance. When, at age fifteen, she went to spend the summer with her father, several experiences quickened the pace of her maturation. With her drunken father asleep in the back seat, she commanded a bucking automobile down a mountain road out of Mexico. Then, after a fight with her father’s girlfriend, Maya ran away and lived for a month in an automobile junkyard with an interracial group of homeless children. By the time she returned to San Francisco, she had been initiated into self-reliance, social self-confidence, and human brotherhood; and there, after a determined campaign, she became the city’s first black female streetcar conductor. Her growing independence and awareness also precipitated a final crisis of her youth. When anxiety about her sexuality led her to experiment, she became pregnant. Angelou ends her story with the birth of her son, Guy, and her discovery, with her mother’s help, that she could trust herself to care for her child.