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.
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 entire section is 966 words.)