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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou was a prolific writer who wrote in various genres, including seven volumes of autobiography. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, is the first of these and by far the best-known. The book follows a loose chronology, in which each chapter presents an episode, short story, or vignette, beginning with the author’s arrival at her grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas, at the age of three and ending when she becomes a mother in San Francisco at the age of sixteen. The book was an instant popular and critical success, remaining on the the New York Times Best Seller list for two years and being nominated for the National Book Award.

Even at the very beginning of the book, the incidents are described from the perspective and with the understanding of Angelou’s childhood self, Marguerite, who often finds the behavior of adults inexplicable. When she is first sexually assaulted by Mr. Freeman at the age of eight, she comments:

It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine. There was never any question of my disliking Mr. Freeman, I simply didn’t understand him either.

Mr. Freeman is a minor character who appears in a few chapters of the book, and a few months of Marguerite’s life, before his abrupt, violent death. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow over the following years, shaping Marguerite’s thoughts, feelings, and relationships. The lack of any explanation for his behavior, and even for his death, is realistic. The adults around Marguerite want to say as little as possible about it. Nonetheless, Marguerite makes it clear to the reader, without fully understanding herself, that the man who preys upon children and threatens them with death is quite unable to survive in the adult world. This is why her immediate instinct is to pity him and perhaps also why she turns her anger inward, blaming herself rather than her abuser for the rape. The last time she refers to him in the book, it is as “poor Mr. Freeman.”

Apart from Mr. Freeman, the most puzzling people in the book are the “white folk” who are constantly hovering on the periphery of Marguerite’s world, though she is aware that they regard themselves as central and the Black people as peripheral, and that the country as a whole supports this perspective. Unlike Mr. Freeman, however, the white people she encounters frequently arouse Marguerite’s wrath with their unreasonable behavior, their condescension, and their inhumanity. By far the most positive white figures in the book are dead poets, particularly Shakespeare. Even in his case, being white is not altogether excusable. Marguerite decides not to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice, knowing that Momma would prefer her to choose the work of a Black poet.

Marguerite’s dislike of white people is justified by the white people she encounters throughout the narrative: Mrs. Cullinan, Dr. Lincoln, Edward Donleavy, the former sheriff. With the single exception of Miss Kirwin, there is not one decent human being among them, and they all treat Marguerite in ways that range from condescension and insensitivity to contempt and cruelty. Shortly before they move to California, Bailey, who has just seen a white man laughing and sneering at the dead body of a Black man, asks what precisely the Black people have done to the whites to cause this hatred. Nobody has an answer for this.

Naturally, there are plenty of nefarious characters apart from Mr. Freeman in the Black community as well. The trip to Mexico in chapter 30 reveals the full extent of Bailey Senior’s narcissism and irresponsibility, and immediately afterward, Marguerite is severely wounded in a fight with his jealous fiancée. In Stamps, she has to deal with the gossip and backbiting of a small town, and in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, with the dangers of a big city. However, though life does not become any easier as Marguerite grows up, she does become more resilient. At the end of chapter 24, Angelou remarks:

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors, and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.

The sexual encounter that produces Marguerite’s son is awkward and unromantic, but it still presents a complete contrast to her rape eight years earlier. Marguerite decides that she wants to have sex, initiates the encounter, and remains in control throughout. This is at least partly the result of a confidence she gained by spending a month living in a junkyard. By the end of the narrative, Marguerite is no longer too “tender-hearted,” as people said she was in Stamps. She is tough enough to be a mother and a Black woman in America.

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