I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography in which Maya Angelou recounts the story of her life up to the birth of her son.
- A young Maya Angelou, then known as Marguerite Johnson, grows up in Arkansas, St. Louis, and California. After her mother's boyfriend rapes her, she becomes nearly mute.
- Marguerite gains courage through reading and surviving a period of homelessness. As a teenager, she becomes San Francisco's first Black streetcar conductor.
- At sixteen, Marguerite gives birth to a son after an unexpected pregnancy and recognizes that she will be a good mother in spite of her fears.
Last Updated on August 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966
Before the first chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, there is a brief account of Marguerite, as Maya Angelou was known as a child and teenager, trying to recite a poem in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church on Easter Sunday. Recalling this memory as an adult, she describes her feelings of shame and alienation as she failed to remember the poem, as well as her fantasy of surprising the congregation by one day waking from her “black ugly dream” and facing them as a white girl with blonde hair. She concludes by saying that the pain of her childhood and adolescence was exacerbated by an awkward awareness of displacement, an awareness she describes as “the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.”
Marguerite’s parents separated when she was three years old, whereupon she and her elder brother, Bailey, were sent to live with her paternal grandmother, whom they called Momma, in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. Momma owned and ran the only general store in the Black section of a heavily segregated town. Marguerite describes her as a deeply religious woman, kindly though a stern disciplinarian, hardworking, and possessed of adamantine self-control. Her disabled son, Marguerite’s uncle Willie, lived with her, and Momma often related the story of how he was dropped on the head by a babysitter when he was three years old.
Marguerite had little contact with white people, who seemed to her like an alien species. On one occasion, a former sheriff warned Momma that the Ku Klux Klan was likely to attack her store. This did not happen, but the author recalls the pain and humiliation of her uncle having to hide in a vegetable bin all night as a precaution. Marguerite only visited the white section of town to buy fresh meat, a luxury few of the Black inhabitants of Stamps could afford. Even the poor white people who lived on Momma’s land (the “powhitetrash”) treated her and Uncle Willie disrespectfully. Once, before Marguerite arrived in Stamps, Momma was summoned to appear in court with a subpoena addressed to “Mrs. Henderson.” When she appeared, everyone, Black and white, was astonished that the honorific “Mrs.” should have been applied to a Black woman.
When Marguerite was seven, her father arrived in Stamps for a visit. Marguerite thought he was going to take her and Bailey to live with him in California, but in fact he drove them to St. Louis, to live with their mother. Their mother, a beautiful, vivacious woman, lived with a man named Mr. Freeman who appeared devoted to her. However, when their mother was away, Mr. Freeman began to sexually assault the eight-year-old Marguerite, threatening to kill her brother if she told anyone. On one occasion, he raped her, and she became violently ill and feverish. Eventually, she told her brother what Mr. Freeman had done, and Mr. Freeman was tried for rape. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment but was released that afternoon. Soon afterward, however, he was found dead, apparently kicked to death.
Marguerite and Bailey returned to Stamps, where their sojourn in St. Louis gave them the status of local celebrities. Although Marguerite was withdrawn and morose after her traumatic experience, she found a friend and mentor in Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an elegant and well-educated woman who encouraged her reading and loaned her books.
The author describes various memorable events in the social life of Stamps: a revival meeting, a gathering to listen to a boxing match on the radio, a summer picnic fish fry. There is also the story of Bailey’s first love, Joyce, who initiated him into the mysteries of sex, then promptly disappeared to marry a railroad porter. Although there were plenty of tragedies within Stamps’s Black community, the involvement of white people always added another layer of degradation to their condition. A politician spoke at the eagerly anticipated school graduation, only to tell the students that they should limit their ambitions to achievement in sports, rather than trying to be scientists or statesmen like their white contemporaries. A white dentist refused to help Marguerite when she was suffering an agonizing toothache, dismissing her with a brutal insult despite the fact that Momma had once loaned him money when he needed it.
Once again, the children moved to live with their mother, who had left St. Louis and by this time lived in San Francisco. They arrived just before the United States entered World War II, at a time when Japanese citizens were being forced out of San Francisco and replaced in their homes and businesses by Black people from the South. Marguerite did well at school, where she found an excellent teacher and role model in Miss Kirwin and, at the age of fourteen, won a scholarship to the California Labor School. Over the summer, she went to stay with her father in Los Angeles but left his house after a fight with his girlfriend. She spent a month living in an old car in a junkyard, an experience which gave her confidence in her own courage and ability to survive.
Marguerite’s determination was tested when she resolved to work as a conductor on a streetcar. The streetcar companies did not employ Black people, but with her mother’s support, Marguerite became the first. However, a greater trial soon followed. Eager for sexual experience and to prove to herself that she was not a lesbian, she slept with a boy who lived nearby and soon found herself pregnant. The book ends with Marguerite sleeping in a bed next to her son a few weeks after the birth, instinctively lying close to him and protecting him, conquering her fears that she would not know how to be a mother.
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