I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Additional Summary

Maya Angelou

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Maya Angelou begins her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with reflections about growing up black and female during the Great Depression in the small, segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.

Following their parents’ divorce, Angelou, then three years old, moved to Stamps with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother and uncle Willie. Their home was the general store, which served as the secular center of the African American community in Stamps. Angelou’s memories of this store include weary farmworkers, the euphoria of Joe Louis’ successful prizefight, and a terrifying nocturnal Ku Klux Klan hunt.

Angelou also recollects lively African American church services, unpleasant interracial encounters, and childhood sexual experimentation. An avid love of reading led the young Angelou to African American writers, including the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, from whose verse Angelou borrows the title for her narrative.

Singing is heard in Angelou’s memories of her segregated Arkansas school. At their grade-school graduation ceremony, Angelou and her classmates counter the racism of a condescending white politician with a defiant singing of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” For Angelou this song becomes a celebration of the resistance of African Americans to the white establishment and a key to her identity as an African American poet.

Angelou spends portions of the narrative with her mother in St. Louis and in California. She has a wild visit to Mexico with her father and is even a homeless runaway for a time. As a girl in St. Louis, Angelou is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Following his trial and mysterious death, Angelou suffers a period of trauma and muteness. Later, an adolescent Angelou struggles with her sexual identity, fears that she is a lesbian, and eventually initiates an unsatisfactory heterosexual encounter, from which she becomes pregnant.

Angelou matures into a self-assured and proud young woman. During World War II, she overcomes racial barriers to become one of the first African American female streetcar conductors in San Francisco. Surviving the uncertainties of an unwanted pregnancy, Angelou optimistically faces her future as an unwed mother and as an African American woman.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Marguerite and Bailey, Jr. are sent by their newly divorced parents to Stamps, Arkansas, when they are three and four, respectively, to live with their grandmother, Momma. Momma, a staid Christian woman, owns the William Johnson General Merchandise Store, which makes a solid living for her and her disabled son, Willie. In her no-nonsense way, she sets about raising her grandchildren to use their minds, mind their manners, and survive in the Depression-era South.

Marguerite and Bailey are bright children. They soon take pleasure in learning to read and to do their numbers. They also learn while still quite small to deal very carefully with white people. On more than one occasion the family faces a very real danger of a Ku Klux Klan atrocity. It is a given that black people are generally powerless against white people.

Marguerite watches her proud stoic grandmother deal with the “powhitetrash” children who sometimes come around the store, trying to goad Momma into some kind of undignified reaction. A group of poor white girls cavort for several minutes one time in front of Momma, who stands at the door of her store, softly humming a hymn. One girl, wearing no underwear, does a revealing handstand right in front of Momma, who does not miss a beat in her humming. When the girls finally tire of the game and go off, saying, “ Bye, Annie,” Momma, with her dignity intact, says good-bye to each one of them by name.

When Marguerite is six, her father comes to Stamps to visit and to take her and Bailey to St. Louis to stay with their mother. Both children are stunned to discover that the parents they assumed were dead are in fact alive. Bailey, Jr. falls in love at first sight with his beautiful, vivacious mother. Marguerite, more reserved, holds back her feeling until she is sure that the beautiful creature truly accepts her smart but very plain daughter.

In St. Louis, Marguerite and Bailey meet Grandmother and Grandfather Baxter and learn what it means to live almost like a white family. Grandmother Baxter is a precinct captain in St. Louis politics and has considerable clout. Her three strapping sons, who are as mean as...

(The entire section is 885 words.)