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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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How were the names Angelou used in her description of Stamps, Arkansas, on page 48 of Chapter 8 "descriptive"?

"Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin' Switch, Georgia; Hang 'Em High, Alabama; Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, N****r, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive."

Quick answer:

These names were descriptive in the ways they made their racism blatantly obvious. Maya Angelou drew attention to the similarity between Stamps, Arkansas, and many other Southern small towns in terms of the deep-rooted racial prejudice they displayed in their very names.

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Stamps, Arkansas is a small town that draws its name from an early settler, Hardy James Stamps. In recent times, however, it has become best known as the childhood home of Maya Angelou, who has described the place in the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Although the name Stamps does not betray much, Angelou puts the name and the town in the same bracket as other towns in the deep South where racist attitudes persisted well after the abolition of slavery, the end of the Civil War and the first half of the twentieth century. By declaring that Stamps was the same as other towns in Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi with more descriptive names that revealed their racist origins, Angelou is asserting that during her childhood Stamps was no haven for the African-American community to which she belonged.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.

If Stamps was like Hang Em High, Alabama, it meant that black people could be lynched there by white mobs. Angelou describes the arrival of an ex-sheriff on horseback at her grandmother’s store to warn her of a ride planned by the Klan through the town, and asking her to keep her son Willie out of sight. In accordance with this warning, disabled Willie, who is Marguerite and Bailey’s uncle, has to be kept hidden in a bin under potatoes and onions.

Stamps being like Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, N****r, Mississippi, meant that it was a “Sundown” town where black people must not be seen by white people after dark. Such towns could be found all over the South, where black people could work as sharecroppers in the fields in the daytime and were supposed to make themselves invisible after dusk. Stamps was also like similar towns in Georgia or elsewhere in the South where white people had plenty of money to spend and could store fresh meat in refrigerators, but families like Angelou’s, even when they were prosperous enough to own a store, made do with canned meat throughout the year except for a couple of occasions when they crossed over to the white section of town to buy liver.

In one of the worst examples of racism seen in the book, Angelou wrote about having a towel around her head and a swollen face because of an excruciating toothache. The white dentist whom her grandmother approaches, and who has earlier borrowed money from Angelou’s grandmother, refuses to treat her grandchild because it’s against his policy to treat black people. He spells it out in devastating fashion: “Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a n****r’s.”

Such an account helps the reader understand how Stamps may not have been as descriptively named as some other Southern towns, but it did not lag behind in the worst of the attributes that their names revealed.

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