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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Themes

The themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings include racism and racial segregation, grace under pressure, and the value of reading.

  • Racism and racial segregation: Marguerite encounters racism from an early age, particularly in segregated Stamps, where the hatred of the white citizens toward their Black neighbors is characterized as both relentless and inexplicable.
  • Grace under pressure: Women like Momma, Grandma Baxter, and Mrs. Flowers earn Marguerite’s admiration for their ability to remain calm in the face of demeaning treatment.
  • The value of reading: Books and poetry provide solace to Marguerite throughout the memoir, particularly after she befriends Mrs. Flowers.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Racism and Racial Segregation

From the first chapter of the book, racism and racial segregation are constantly in the background. From the first, the opportunity to be surrounded only by people of her own race is comforting for Marguerite. The segregated train on which she rides to Stamps, Arkansas, at the age of three, is full of kind, sympathetic people who share their food with her. Throughout the rest of the book, the Black community is shown as possessing a complex mixture of virtues and vices, some endemic, others produced by oppression. The white people, by contrast, are alien invaders, utterly inexplicable in their actions and attitudes. When Bailey sees a white man sneering at the dead body of a Black man, he asks his family what the Black people did to the whites to make such hatred possible. Nobody knows.

Marguerite finds the attitudes of the “powhitetrash” who live on Momma’s land most galling of all. Their arrogant treatment of Momma is racism in its purest form, unmixed with class attitudes. The “powhitetrash” have no money or property, no education, no manners, and no achievement of any kind, yet they still consider it natural to treat their Black neighbors with contempt. They express without reserve the racist sentiments which the better-educated white citizens of Stamps, such as Mrs. Cullinan and Dr. Lincoln, only voice when pressed.

Grace Under Pressure

In his speech at the school graduation ceremony, the aspiring politician Edward Donleavy makes it clear that Black boys need not have any aspiration other than athletic prowess. They may be the next Joe Louis, but not the next Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln. Black girls, apparently, are not even worth mentioning. Their destiny is to be housemaids, cooks, or shop assistants, then wives and mothers.

This is not only the attitude of the white establishment; it filters down even to the “powhitetrash,” who treat Momma with offhand arrogance, despite the fact that she owns the land on which they live. The book is full of casual yet brutal insults meted out to Momma and her friends. One of the most egregious occurs when Marguerite is in terrible pain from toothache and Momma takes her to the white dentist, who had borrowed money from her in the past. He tells her that he would sooner put his hand “in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”

In the face of all this provocation, Momma, who can be hot-tempered when dealing with her grandchildren, appears cool, serene, and cheerful. She is one of several strong Black women, such as Grandmother Baxter and Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who remain both gracious and formidable in the face of despicable treatment. Marguerite is constantly amazed by their ability to do this. When the “powhitetrash” and others are rude to Momma, she feels the humiliation much more than her grandmother ever appears to. She admits to being relieved that she has never seen Mrs. Flowers with the “powhitetrash,” since she knows they would not treat her with respect. As Black women have even more tribulations to bear than their husbands and brothers, their urbanity is even more impressive to Marguerite.

The Value of Reading

Marguerite is frequently baffled by the adults around her and particularly by the inexplicable conduct of white people, who seem like an alien race. As early as chapter 2, however, she reveals that there is one white man whose thoughts are perfectly intelligible to her and who seems to understand how she feels, despite having died more than three centuries before she was born. William Shakespeare, the author says, was her “first white love,” the only author who fully transcended the boundaries of race in his universal humanity, describing her own feelings perfectly in the sonnet “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

Reading provides solace and inspiration for Marguerite at many other points in the narrative. When she is morose and silent after being raped by Mr. Freeman, Mrs. Bertha Flowers befriends her, lends her books of poetry, and teaches her the importance of reading out loud and the beauty of the human voice. Later, when she is separated from Mrs. Flowers, Marguerite does not miss her, because “she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.”

Rape and Violence

Angelou’s harrowing description of the rape which takes place in chapter 12 overshadows the whole book, as it does the life of the young Marguerite. While Mr. Freeman’s earlier fumbling assaults are described in confused and equivocal terms, evoking guilt and confusion rather than horror, there is no mistaking the pain and trauma of the rape itself. Angelou describes it as a “breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.” Afterward, she thought she had died.

When the law fails to punish Mr. Freeman, he soon meets with a violent death. The reader never learns who is responsible, but Marguerite has told various tales of her “mean” uncles, who have always been prepared to use whatever violence is necessary to defend the family honor. St. Louis is an overtly violent society, but Stamps is just as lawless in its way. Uncle Willie has to cower in a vegetable bin all night for fear of being lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, and it is too dangerous for people who live out of town to walk home on the night when Joe Louis wins a boxing match against a white man. Marguerite’s rape, therefore, takes place against a background in which the strong routinely prey upon the weak, and Mr. Freeman does not come close to being strong enough to prey on anyone with impunity.

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Chapter Summaries