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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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In Chapter 9 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, why does Angelou's reference to Humpty Dumpty aptly reflect her world?

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Maya Angelou has described her father's arrival in Stamps, Arkansas as a moment when her seven-year-old world is humpty-dumptied, because it signals the end of a safe and secure phase for her at her grandmother's home. His arrival sets in motion events that represent irreparable damage.

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In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, Maya Angelou’s describes her life in Stamps, Arkansas where her grandmother Annie Henderson owns a store. She has lived there for four years, with her brother Bailey, when her father drives up there one day.

Maya, or Marguerite and her brother Bailey had arrived unaccompanied on a train to Stamps with tags on their wrists when the former was three and the latter four. Even though this was because of their parents’s marriage ending, neither mother or father saw it fit to accompany the two small children. They had since settled into a comforting routine with their grandmother and uncle, and the visitors who came to the store. While their day was packed with school and chores, life had taken over a soothing, predictable pattern that Maya loved, enjoying weighing out pounds and ounces of flour, sugar, corn, mash or meal to customers. The familiar shape of her grandmother’s home and its daily routine is evocatively described by Angelou:

Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for good, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the front doors was pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift. The light would come in softly (we faced north), easing itself over the shelves of mackerel, salmon, tobacco, thread. It fell at on the big vat of lard and by noontime during the summer the grease had softened to a thick soup.

Marguerite, or Maya, had dealt with her and her brother’s being sent alone across America as mere toddlers by blanking out the existence of her mother and father. While she painted elaborate mental pictures of their beauty and grandeur, she assumed they were dead. She had no reason to assume otherwise until one Christmas she and Bailey received presents from them. This was the first time that both she and her brother felt acutely hurt by her parents’s absence. The fact that their parents were alive, presumably enjoying the Californian sun and oranges, and were content to stay separated from them was a terrible thought that jolted the children out of their comfort zone and made them weep.

Her father’s arrival at Stamps one year later in a clean gray car has been described by her with the bleak words: “And my seven-year-old world humpty-dumptied, never to be put back together again."

This brings home the fragile nature of the comfortable shell she had inhabited for four years. It was safe and solid only till a year before her father arrived in person. The Christmas presents had brought both children a glimpse of how they needed to be aware of a world beyond Stamps, but they could still continue to remain sheltered and protected by their grandmother Annie Henderson’s ample patronage. Her father’s arrival brought changes that led to permanent damage, just like how Humpty-Dumpty couldn’t be put together in spite of the efforts of all the king’s men.

Angelou's observation that her father had probably cleaned his car just before entering Stamps in order to make a “grand entrance” reflects her later awareness in the book of his vanity and desire to appear larger than life.

Marguerite observed her father’s mannerisms and tolerated his presence in her familiar surroundings, because she thought he would go one day and leave things back as they once were. However, when she and her brother had to accompany him North to resume a life with their mother in St. Louis, she was racked by apprehension and homesickness even as they traveled in the clean gray car.

Reaching St. Louis, they began to live with her mother and Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend. This proved disastrous and traumatizing for eight-year-old Marguerite, who was raped. Although Mr. Freeman was taken to trial, Marguerite was so traumatized by her experience and his later murder, most likely at the hands of her uncles, that she gave up speaking to anyone except Bailey. This distressed her mother’s family and they decided to ship the two children back to Stamps, Arkansas.

The children came back to the same environment, but the chain of events that had been set in motion by her father’s arrival that day meant that everything was different. Angelou was grateful for the chance to heal in familiar surroundings.

The barrenness of Stamps was exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness. After St. Louis… I welcomed the obscure lanes and lonely bungalows set back deep in dirt yards.

The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened.

Into this cocoon I crept.

Angelou’s description of that day when her father emerged from his car is seen to be a premonition of the traumatic events that follow.

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