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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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What are Marguerite's feelings towards Uncle Willie in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

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William Johnson, Uncle Willie, is mostly described in chapter 2 of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He is characterized by his disability; at just three years old, a baby sitter dropped him. This action has resulted in his having a crooked face, disproportionate hands, and a broken frame described by Marguerite as “a giant black Z” (p. 10). Despite his disability, Marguerite recognizes the pride and strength of her uncle and describes his role as a disciplinarian in her young life.

Marguerite explains that at that time in Stamps, it was difficult for able-bodied black men to achieve a livable wage but that Uncle Willie didn’t hide behind his disabilities. Instead, he comes to work each day dressed in his best. She describes him “with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, [he] was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid” (p 12). To contrast this pride, she gives an anecdote of the one time she remembers him trying to hide his disability. She recounts his hiding his cane and trying to stand straight while a married couple visits the store and takes his picture. She hypothesizes that for just one day, he didn’t want to be seen as the town’s cripple and tried to escape the stigma: “He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame” (p. 13).

Marguerite respects her uncle and realizes the life lessons she learns from her time with him. She explains her feelings:

The tragedy of lameness seems so unfair to children that they are embarrassed in its presence. And they, most recently off nature’s mold, sense that they have only narrowly missed being another of her jokes. In relief at the narrow escape, they vent their emotions in impatience and criticism of the unlucky cripple.

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In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, how is Marguerite related to Uncle Willie and how does she feel about him?

Willie is Maya's uncle, her father's brother.  She loves him dearly.  Willie suffers from a stutter and an old injury that makes him particularly vulnerable, so Maya also feels protective, even though Willie can at times be very stern. 

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