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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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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.

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This best-selling autobiographical narrative was Maya Angelou’s first book; it set in motion a writing career to complement her significant work in dance, the theater, and the Civil Rights movement. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a first-person account of Angelou’s life from the age of three, when she arrived in Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her grandmother, to the age of sixteen, when she gave birth out of wedlock to her only child in San Francisco.

In the opening scene Maya flees in embarrassment from the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Stamps after failing to remember her Easter service lines. The succeeding thirty-six chapters depict her life in Stamps, then in St. Louis, back in Stamps, and finally in California through vignettes arranged in chronological order. Angelou relates events from the perspective of the middle-aged adult she was when writing, but she gives them the flavor and personality of the child experiencing them. The resulting combination of a Black girl’s innocence and the confident, penetrating, sometimes bitter insights of a knowledgeable and successful Black woman lend the narrative tension, drama, and force.

The center of Angelou’s life in Stamps was the general store owned by her grandmother, Annie Henderson—“Momma” to Maya and her brother Bailey, who was a year older and her closest friend throughout childhood. Maya recalls optimistic mornings when Black cotton pickers met at the store and their despairing evening return from the fields. She remembers helping to hide Uncle Willie in a vegetable bin in the store after a condescending former sheriff warns, “A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.” She recalls an incident in front of the store when some White children torment “Momma,” who keeps her dignity but says nothing.

She vividly remembers the Joe Louis-Primo Carnera heavyweight championship boxing match, to which everyone listened on the store radio. When the “Brown Bomber” Louis began to get the upper hand, Angelou recalls: “Some bitter comedian on the porch said, ‘That white man don’t mind hugging that niggah now, I betcha.’” Relief and joy greeted Louis’ knockout victory (“If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help”). Afterward, people who had come some distance to listen to the fight made arrangements to spend the night in town: “It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.”

Maya’s father visited Stamps when she was eight—she and her brother never understood why their divorced parents had sent them back to their grandmother— and drove Maya and Bailey to St. Louis to live with their mother. During their year there, Maya was raped by her mother’s live-in lover, who was subsequently murdered, presumably by Maya’s enraged male relatives. Back in Stamps, Maya moped around in sullen silence for a year, but she found direction and pride through her acquaintance with the sophisticated and sympathetic Bertha Flowers, a “lady who threw me my first life line, . . . our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.”

Saturdays, summer picnic fish fries, and Holy Roller revivals left special marks in Maya’s memory. The Holy Rollers energized the otherwise understandably discouraged Black community through oblique criticism of the “white folk.” As the preacher put it: “Charity don’t say, ‘Because I give you a job, you got to bend your knee to me.’”

Graduation for the eighth grade class of 1940—“the whole young population had come down with graduation epidemic”—was almost ruined by an insensitive, patronizing White guest speaker. Nevertheless, the ceremony ended in bold jubilation with everyone joining the class valedictorian, who concluded his speech with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Angelou explains, “It was the poem written by James Weldon Jones. It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro national anthem.”

Among her last memories of Stamps is the day Momma took her to the local White dentist to have two painful teeth pulled. The dentist, who had borrowed money from Momma during the Depression, refused to treat Maya, telling Momma, “Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.” Momma then demanded interest on the money she had previously lent the dentist; with that ten dollars, she took Maya by bus to a dentist in Texarkana.

At thirteen Maya left Arkansas for good. Momma took her and Bailey to live in Los Angeles for six months. Momma then returned to Stamps, while Maya and Bailey joined their mother in San Francisco. It was during World War II, and Blacks had taken over the formerly Japanese Fillmore section. Maya had an inspiring teacher named Miss Kirwin at George Washington High School, and she won a scholarship to study drama and dance at night at the California Labor School. Her mother was married to a wealthy, self-made man named Daddy Clidell. In their building lived Black con artists who regaled Maya with wonderful tales of outwitting Whites.

Maya traveled to Los Angeles to spend the summer with her father. Formerly a doorman at the Breakers Hotel in Santa Monica and then a member of the kitchen staff at a navy hospital, Bailey Johnson, Sr., lived in a mobile home with a woman who knifed Maya, who had started a fight when the woman had called Maya’s mother a whore. After the fight, Maya decided to strike out on her own and lived for a month in an abandoned automobile in a junkyard in the company of other young Blacks doing the same. Upon her return to San Francisco, she became an assistant streetcar conductor. Bailey, who had fought with his mother, left home to start his own life as a dining-car waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Angelou remembers herself at fifteen as not pretty, nearly six feet tall, and flat chested. She worried about the possibility of being a lesbian and as a result decided to have sex with a handsome young man who lived in the neighborhood. It was a forgettable encounter but had one long-lasting result: Maya got pregnant. After finishing high school, she gave birth at sixteen. Her recollection of sleeping peacefully and protectively next to her newborn son brings the autobiographical narrative to a close.

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Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells her story: that of a Southern Black girl moved from place to place, along with her brother Bailey, after their parents’ divorce. The book is divided into thirty-six chapters and begins with a vignette, a sketch of the young Maya trying unsuccessfully to recite an Easter poem in church. She cannot remember the words. “Peeing and crying” in fear, she flees the church and concludes, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” With this cultural setting, Angelou shifts to Long Beach, California, in 1931, where Maya and Bailey Johnson, Jr., ages three and four, are being sent by train to the home of their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson (called Momma), in Stamps, Arkansas. From there, the chapters are arranged chronologically and geographically, following Angelou’s youth to the age of sixteen and the displacements of the children—to Stamps, to St. Louis, back to Stamps, to Los Angeles, and finally, to San Francisco. Along with the geographical displacements are familial displacements, as Angelou lives with her parents, with Momma and Uncle Willie, with her mother and Mr. Freeman, with Grandmother Baxter, with her father and his girlfriend, and with her mother and stepfather, Daddy Clidell.

Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after several requests from Random House publishers. Though it is an autobiography, it is also an exploration of survival. In a 1983 interview, Angelou says,When I wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I wasn’t thinking so much about my own life and identity. I was thinking about a particular time in which I lived and the influences of that time on a number of people. I kept thinking, what about that time? What were the people around young Maya doing? I used the central figure—myself—as a focus to show how one person can make it through those times.

Angelou talks about her survival as a Black Southern girl in a society that devalues her beauty, talent, and ambition.

She contends that all of her work is “about survival.” The sketches in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings support her contention. Although parts of the book are humorous, such as the revival scene in chapter 6, when Sister Monroe knocks out Reverend Thomas’ false teeth, many of the sketches deal with painful struggles for survival, such as the encounter between Momma and the racist White dentist who will not treat Angelou and the rape of the eight-year-old Maya.

In 1979, when Angelou was adapting I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for film, she became keenly aware of the story line. She described it as “very delicate.” It is the story of surviving both racism and childhood, and it culminates in a scene of the sixteen-year-old Angelou, having recently been graduated from high school, lying in bed and snuggling close to her three-week-old son, the result of a brief and loveless encounter with a teenage boy. Angelou’s second autobiographical novel, Gather Together in My Name (1974), takes the story from there.

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In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, who was born Marguerite Johnson, recounts her experiences as an African-American youth in the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s. She candidly explores the complexities of racism, family life, and growing up. The thirty-six chapters of Angelou’s 250-page autobiography are arranged chronologically and geographically, following Angelou and her brother, Bailey, from home to home.

Angelou sets the tone of the autobiography with a three-page vignette preceding the first chapter. She describes herself as a young child standing before a congregation in a church and reciting an Easter poem. She forgets her lines, becomes nervous, and flees the church. Angelou’s flight from a traditional sanctuary, where she has found only discomfort, will be one of many flights.

In 1931, when Marguerite and Bailey Johnson began their moves, she was three and he was four. Their parents, on the verge of divorce, sent the children by train from Long Beach, California, to the home of the children’s paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson (Momma), who ran the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—called the Store—in Stamps, Arkansas, with the help of Uncle Willie, their father’s crippled brother. During the next fifteen years, the children moved to St. Louis, Missouri, then back to Stamps, then to Los Angeles, and later to San Francisco. They lived with Momma and Uncle Willie, with their mother and her boyfriend, with their maternal grandmother, with their father and his girlfriend, and finally with their mother and their new stepfather. Angelou even spent a month living in a junkyard. Bailey ultimately joined the merchant marines.

Despite the transience of her childhood, Angelou brings a coherence to her autobiography by organizing it into a series of sketches and narratives. Some of the sketches will make readers laugh, such as the description of the revival at which Sister Monroe, in her religious zeal, attacked Reverend Thomas and knocked out his false teeth or the account of Angelou’s revenge against Viola Cullinan, who stripped Angelou of her name. Other sketches convey the depth of her love and admiration for others, such as her portraits of her brother, who was her “unshakable God,” and of Bertha Flowers, who introduced Angelou to poetry. Still other sketches recount painful events of Angelou’s youth, such as the rape that hospitalized her when she was eight years old and the confrontation between Momma and the White dentist who refused to treat Angelou because he was racist. With these sketches, the poetic voice of the author unifies an otherwise fragmented childhood. She makes her life—from age three through high-school graduation and the birth of her child shortly after—coherent by painting in words the world that she knew.

Angelou desentimentalizes the image of African-American cotton pickers, shows the consolation of the religious revivals held at night in tents, and helps readers to understand the power of a symbol such as boxer Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber. For example, in Momma’s Store, the tired field workers gathered one evening to hear Louis fight Primo Carnera. Louis was caught on the ropes.My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a White woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

While Louis was on the ropes, Angelou continued, “We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.” When Louis came back, so did Angelou’s people; when he won, they did.

Although the sketches and the chronology hold I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings together, the strong, life-affirming voice of the author also unifies the autobiography. Just as the book begins with a child, reciting a half-remembered Easter poem, it ends with a child. Angelou, just out of high school, lies in her bed, snuggled close to her three-week-old infant.

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