I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Without question, Maya Angelou is one cool woman. She dragged herself from a potentially crappy and horrible life to an educated, strong well lived life. She grew up under racial hatred in the Deep South of Arkansas. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book about her early childhood struggles and the stuff that went down for her. Maya Angelou has written many novels and poetry including a poem for President Clinton’s inauguration. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s life story from the time she was three until she graduated high school. This story is autobiographical, that is a true story about oneself. The author and the narrator are both Maya Angelou telling about Maya Angelou. It is about the growth and inner strength of a person, namely Angelou, and her journey from almost orphan to mother of a son.
Marguerite "Maya" Johnson: She is the main character of the story. It starts when she is three and ends when she is sixteen. Maya is a tall, dorky girl but very smart. To help her through life and its racial prejudices she reads books and tries hard in school. She handles a lot of family garbage (orphaned, strict Grandmother, mother is a gambler) by staying tough mentally and reading. She is basically a nice girl with a weird family.
Bailey Johnson, Jr.: Maya’s older brother. He is always there for Maya when the problems hit the fan. He is funny, sarcastic and as he gets older, more street wise. He is very loyal to his sister. Leaves home when he is sixteen to join the Merchant Marines.
Annie ‘Momma’ Henderson: Maya and Bailey’s Grandmother on their father’s side. She is one tough, small town, southern black woman. Bible fearing and believing. Momma takes care of the kids when her son sends them to her. She runs the general store in her hometown of Stamps, Arkansas. She has the respect of both black and white people although more so the black.
Bailey Johnson: Maya and Bailey’s father. He is a large, well speaking man who also is a bit materialistic and egotistical. He has worked as a doorman, Naval dietician (a cook) and comes from Stamps. On to bigger and better things he left and went to California.
Vivian Baxter: Vivian is Maya’s mother. She and Bailey call her "Mother Dear". She is hot to trot and looks like a movie star. She works in gambling houses and likes to party. When her kids come to live with her she takes pretty good care of them. She’s real cool but doesn’t play and will (and has) shoot you.
Uncle Willie: Bailey SR’s brother and Maya’s uncle. Willie lives at the store with Momma (his mother) in Stamps, Arkansas. He is crippled because a babysitter dropped him when he was young. He is stern but nice.
The Baxter’s: This is "Mother Dear’s" clan. It includes Grandfather and Grandmother Baxter and three uncles. They all live in St. Louis. They are tough, know the cops and protect their own. The uncles kill a man for raping Maya. Grandmother Baxter is a smooth operator.
Daddy Clidell: A conservative property owner who marries Vivian "Mother Dear" Baxter after WWII. He is a decent father to Maya and Bailey.
Mr. Freeman: A large and flabby fellow. He raped Maya when she was eight and threatened to kill her brother if she told. He wound up dead in a ditch after getting a light sentence.
The book opens with a young Maya having a tough time in a church play. She can’t get her lines right. Even though Momma has made a pretty dress for her she becomes self-conscious and feels ugly. This sets the theme and tone for the rest of the book. Throughout the story Maya grows up. Her life started on a train in California when her parents stuck her and Bailey with a porter (who got off in Arizona) bound for Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother. There they grow up under the dominance of the racially prejudice south. Momma owns the store in town and when the kids are old enough to help they do. Momma and Uncle Willie are strict on Bailey and Maya but fair. They always go to church and church plays a large part in Maya’s young life.
As Maya gets older she still feels insecure but immerses herself in schoolwork and excels. When they are around seven they are sent to St. Louis to live with their Mom who they have never seen or met. Momma made them leave Stamps because of the racial hatred. In St. Louis they are ‘wowed’ by the big city and all its stuff. They go to school and find out that they are ahead a little and they do well. "Mother Dear" works a lot but Mr. Freeman, her boyfriend, is around when he comes home from work. He first molests, then rapes Maya. He threatens to kill her brother Bailey if she tells. When her bloody panties are found, she tells. Mr. Freeman goes to trial and gets off easy. He winds up dead. It is assumed that the Uncle’s Baxters kill him. After this Maya won’t talk and is shipped back to Stamps.
Momma takes care of Maya and life goes back to the small town routine of church, school and working in the store. Maya reads more than ever and becomes smart by doing so. She experiences things through books that she isn’t able too in real life. She graduates from the eighth grade with honors. She realizes that for Black people life is held down by the Southern whites but keeps her head up and is determined to do well in life.
Momma takes her and Bailey to Los Angeles to live with their mother. They stay there for a few months while Vivian gets settled in San Francisco. They live in SF with the whole Baxter clan who have moved from St. Louis. Maya is awakened to people of all races and creeds in San Francisco and there is a more racially tolerant attitude there. While here she does well in school and graduates. She worries about her brother who runs off to become a man in the Merchant Marines. She visits her father in Los Angeles and goes to Mexico. Back in SF Maya becomes sexually interested because she is worried that she is a lesbian so she gets pregnant from a one-night stand.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER
- Bailey and Maya are shipped from California to Stamps, Arkansas with "To Whom It May Concern" wrist tags on.
- Maya and Bailey work in the General Store that their Grandmother (Momma) owns.
- Maya watches the farm workers and cotton pickers leave early and get home bone tired late. She begins to sense the divide between black and white.
- Maya practices math with her brother under the watchful eye of crippled Uncle Willie who presses them near the wood burner if they slacked.
- Maya realizes that Uncle Willie is ashamed of being crippled. She feels bad for him because it is tough for even healthy black men to make a living.
- Store life picks up for Maya and Bailey as they learn the ins and outs of the place and its customers. There are lots of chores to do.
- The white sheriff comes by to warn Momma of trouble. The KKK will be riding that night looking to find someone black to hurt.
- Store life continues. Maya stays close to her brother and they fool around with people.
- Bailey always defends his sister. He is the pride of the family, good looking and smart.
- Bailey steals pickles from the pickle barrel and both he and Maya eat them later.
- Some "powhitetrash" girls come to the store and give Momma a hard time. They call her by her first name, Annie, and act like jerks
- Maya hears all this and is ashamed that these uncombed and dirty dress wearing girls can talk to her Momma like that.
- Maya is angered that Momma calls them ‘Miz’ and begins to cry.
- The Reverend Howard Thomas, a mooch and a half, comes to the Henderson household and Maya can’t stand him. He eats all their food—and the best pieces too!
- Before church on Sundays, Momma cooks a huge meal but it gets cold and hard because the ‘Rev’ takes forever with his prayers. He doesn’t notice and pigs out anyhow.
- Church is described and this lady, Sister Monroe, who is moved by the Spirit, freaks. She screams AMEN! and PREACH IT! and hits the preacher. Why? She’s out of it, but it is whacked and super funny.
- Momma was married three times to Mr. Johnson who left her at the turn of the century. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Murphy who came around once and had Uncle Willie watching him so he would not steal anything from the store.
- White folks can’t be trusted at all to talk to (so Momma tells Maya and Bailey).
- Maya tells how Stamps is one hell of a racist town. She calls it "Hang ‘em High" and "Don’t let the sun set on you here".
- The Depression hits the black people of Stamps a little late but when it does it hits hard. People are too poor to raise hogs because feed is too much money.
- To keep the store going Momma lets folk’s trade in Government rations (food). She figured out a tabulated system of food=money.
- Maya and Bailey get Christmas gifts from their parents and they are both sad and blaming themselves for their banishment. Momma sets them straight. Bailey SR. sends his own photograph (ego city) and Maya gets a tea set from her Mother.
- A year passes and Bailey Sr. shows up in Stamps unannounced which shocks both Maya and Bailey. He is a large, well-spoken man. He says he is taking them to California.
- Momma gets them ready to go by making them clothes and she is sad to see them go.
- Bailey Sr., while understanding some car talk pig Latin between the kids, tells them that they are going to see their Mother in St. Louis.
- Maya describes her mother’s beauty as being like that of a movie stars.
- After a few days Bailey Sr. goes back to California and leaves the kids (essentially the parents of Maya are both strangers to her).
- Life in St. Louis is vastly different than in Stamps. It is fast, noisy, less religious and with plenty of gambling and drinking. They meet all kinds of underworld people.
- Grandmother Baxter knows the cops, killers and everyone in between. She has respect.
- School is pretty easy for the kids. Less strict than in Stamps.
- Both Maya and Bailey are into what their mother is all about. They dig her even though she is less than perfect.
- Maya and Bailey are moved into a new house with Mr. Freeman, Vivian's lover.
- The Baxter uncles are bad asses who have city jobs but whip anyone who insults their family.
- Mother works a lot in the gambling halls and Mr. Freeman seldom speaks but waits for his woman to come home. (She stays out all night sometimes, presumably with other men). He is like a big flabby roll of toilet paper as he always waits.
- Maya is afraid a lot so that Vivian takes her into her bed to calm her down. Mr. Freeman likes this and Maya wakes with his hard penis on her little leg one day.
- Mr. Freeman holds her and abuses her by making her touch his "thing".
- Maya likes his attentions being too young understand the sexual acts. She feels as if Mr. Freeman is a real, caring parent because he holds her.
- Maya begins to read a lot and goes to the library often.
- After Mother Dear doesn’t come home Mr. Freeman sends Maya out for milk and then orders her to come over to him. His pants are down and his hard "thing" stands ready. Maya says no but he pulls her to him.
- Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey if Maya resists.
- He rapes her. She is eight years old. Maya promises never to tell (for fear of him killing Bailey).
- Maya gets sick and Bailey and Mother take care of her. They think she has the measles.
- After taking her out to bathe her, Mother takes the sheets off to clean them also and out fall the bloody panties of Maya. She put them there after the rape. They fall at her Mothers feet.
- In the hospital Bailey tells his sister to rat out who hurt her but she says if she does that Bailey will die. He laughs it off.
- She tells him what Mr. Freeman did and he is arrested.
- In court Maya screams at Mr. Freeman calling him a "mean ole’ dirty thing."
- Mr. Freeman only gets one year and one day but is released the same day.
- The cops come and tell Grandma Baxter that Freeman was found kicked to death in a field.
- Maya stops talking at all to everyone but Bailey.
- After a while of this silence they are sent back to Stamps.
- Life in Stamps is slow motion for Maya and Bailey.
- Bailey mocks out the country folk of Stamps and tells them lies about the much better North.
- Maya disses Uncle Willies sympathy about her rape.
- Everyone accepts her silence for what it is.
- Maya finds comfort in the old and cool Mrs. Bertha Flowers who teaches her more about books and lets her borrow a bunch of hers.
- Maya finally speaks but gets whipped by Momma because she unknowingly takes the Lords name in vain.
- Maya gets a job working in the kitchen of the white Mrs. Viola Cullinan. She finds out what china, silver and all the other rich stuff that goes with a dinner meal. Mrs.Cullinan is a rich, white jerk.
- Maya feels sorry for Mrs. Cullinan because she can’t have kids but her husband can—with some black lady down the road.
- Maya rebels because the ignorant Mrs. Cullinan calls her Margaret and Mary (not her name eh?) and breaks her favorite casserole dish. Mrs. C freaks and throws glass around. Maya quits, of course feeling somewhat better.
- Bailey is late coming home so Momma and Maya go out in the dark to find him.
- Bailey is watching a film over and over because the actress looks like his mother.
- Uncle Willie gives him a way out whipping on the bare butt.
- Maya mentions that one-year from all this Bailey hops a train out of town to go see his "Mother Dear". He got stranded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for two whole weeks.
- Maya talks about the hard working, underpaid, religious cotton field workers. They have a cruel life.
- There is a tent revival meeting in Stamps and everyone is going. The revival is super religious with all denominations attending. This escapism of God and salvation lets the poorest of people feel good about living.
- A heavyweight boxing match between champ Joe Louis (black man) and a white, cracker boxer is on the radio in the store. Everyone is crowded around to hear it. Joe Louis, a great fighter is bringing the black person some respect.
- The people of Stamps identify with Louis, he represents all their struggles and when he kicks butt they all do. He wins the fight and everyone is relieved and parties hardy.
- Maya is at a cool picnic with a TON of food. Girls and boys play games and run around and the adults talk and everyone eats the great chow.
- Maya meets Louise Kendricks her new friend. Louise is cool and a solid friend.
- Maya gets a love not from a boy and consults Louise. She is embarrassed and finally it turns the boy (Tommy) off and he moves along to other girls.
- Bailey builds a makeshift tent out back and gets himself this girlfriend, Joyce. Joyce is a sexually interested girl with some family problems. They have sex. Bailey is into her and steals food from the store for her.
- Joyce runs off with some train porter dude form Dallas. Bailey is upset of course.
- It is a stormy night and Maya and Bailey read in the store while Uncle Willie and Momma also sit around. In walks a Mr. Taylor who recently lost his wife.
- In the story Maya describes the funeral and the dead, lifeless body.
- He swears he has recently seen her and tells them so. A ghost story.
- Momma blows him off to feel better. She talks about food and dinner. Mr. Taylor tells of a fat little angel who was laughing. Everyone is a little uneasy until they eat and things go back to ‘normal’ chatter.
- Maya is psyched that she is going to graduate the eighth grade. The whole town is pretty excited for the graduating class. Maya bursts with anticipation. Everyone gets dressed up.
- Maya is second smartest in her class to Henry.
- A white man, Mr. Donleavy (a local politician) speaks at the ceremony and bums Maya out. He lets them know that they are the workers of the country and not white and privileged. She thinks life sucks.
- Henry gives his valedictorian speech and gets everybody’s confidence level back up. He uplifts with good words of a good future. Maya feels like the future is now bright again.
- Maya has a wicked toothache and has to go see a dentist. An emergency tooth ache.
- Momma takes her to the white dentist in town that she knows. The black dentist lives 25 miles away in Texarkana. The white dentist, Dentist Lincoln, says he doesn’t treat niggers. Momma reminds him of the money he borrowed from her during the depression. He doesn’t care. Momma tells Maya to wait outside and she goes into his office.
- Maya fantasizes that Momma is kicking his ass with her power. Momma comes out and they go the 25 miles to the black dentist.
- Momma gets some interest from the Dentist. It is her way of saying F-you to him because he really has paid her back.
- Maya overhears the real version of Momma and the white dentist. It is not her fantasy version and she is saddened.
- Bailey and other black men are forced by a deputy to fish a bloated dead black man out of a pond and put him in the jail.
- Momma realizes that she does not want her grandchildren to grow up under the racism of the South.
- She moves with them to California and Los Angeles to meet both parents and then to San Francisco.
- Maya feels okay at leaving because she has books and their comfort.
- Seeing the parents makes Maya feel guilt from the rape so many years ago.
- Momma sticks around for awhile to help everyone adjust. They live in Oakland and Momma shops and talks and has a decent time. She stays for six months before she goes back to Stamps.
- Maya’s mother marries Daddy Clidell and he is a good father to both her and Bailey.
- San Francisco is a good place to live because people are more accepting of any differences that people might have or be.
- World War II starts.
- Thirteen year old Maya ponders the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor and the lock up of the Japanese people. All the Japanese businesses have turned into non-Japanese businesses.
- Maya, as usual, ponders race relations in America. Black people are recruited from the South to work in factories.
- Maya’s school is a nice but stuck up place. Maya still is a brain but only one of three black kids.
- Her teacher, Miss. Kirwin, is very tough on the kids. She makes them do a lot of work so that they will learn more and become smarter.
- Maya ponders the people who have made a difference in her life. Momma for her being quietly tough, Mrs. Flowers and her reading books, brother Bailey for love, Her mother and her mother’s happiness, Miss. Kirwin and her info., and some dancing classes that she takes.
- Daddy Clidell, her mother’s husband, is a cool man. Nice to Maya.
- Maya meets all the hipster, underground people who are criminals in the Black underground.
- Maya tells how school is one place to learn and the street another.
- Maya goes on vacation to Daddy Bailey’s trailer in southern California. He lives with his girlfriend, Dolores, a real bitch.
- Daddy works as a cook for the Navy and likes to party in Mexico where he has a chick on the side.
- Dolores is hard on Maya. She orders her to clean her room better and all that jazz. They argue all the time.
- Dad takes Maya to Mexico where he gets so drunk he falls asleep and Maya drives. She never has before so she wings it, at night, in Mexico, on mountain roads. She crashes into a car at a security checkpoint. Daddy Bailey is finally awakened and he takes care of bizness.
- Dolores whines about Bailey letting his kids come between them. She is just jealous and petty. He calls her a sow and boogies out of the house.
- Maya feels bad for her and goes to apologize. Dolores tells her to go home to her mother—if she has one. Then, she calls Maya’s mother a whore!
- Maya tells her she’s gonna slap her for that. Maya is a lot bigger than the little Dolores.
- She slaps her and Dolores freaks. Maya runs from the trailer with blood running down her side.
- Dolores screams and chases Maya to a parked car where she locks herself in.
- Daddy and some neighbors come and calm things down. She tells him that she has been cut. Daddy takes her to friend of his and they fix Maya up. She then has to stay at a friend of Bailey’s trailer.
- Maya makes some food and leaves. Her father is more concerned about what people think of him than how she is and Dolores is a bitch.
- For a whole month Maya lives in a junkyard with other runaways. They peddle, steal and do whatever to get by. They all live in cars in the junkyard.
- Maya learns a lot from this tough life.
- She calls her mother who sends her a plane ticket and then she goes home to a whole lot of food.
- Bailey hangs with tough street kids and his nice attitude changes to one of a cold, mean kid. He fights with his beloved ‘Mother Dear’ about what time to come home. He drinks and smokes and ignores his sister.
- Maya continues to dance at classes.
- Bailey gets kicked out of the house and goes to live with an old, shriveled white whore. He might be her pimp.
- Bailey lives in a shitty little smelly room and dreams of working for the railroad. He thinks that he is a man at 16. He is a boy like all 16 year olds.
- As we know, Maya is super smart. She thinks all the time. She wants to get a job and decides to get a job on the trolley. But the company doesn’t hire blacks. She refuses to accept that and won’t be brushed off by racism. "Can’t" is not in her vocabulary.
- She goes back day after day and is always polite until finally she becomes the very first black trolley conductor in San Francisco.
- They try to wear her out by giving her the worst hours imaginable but she persists and is strong and wins out.
- She becomes aware that she is aware of what is going on all around her while most people are concerned about how they look or something.
- She begins to skip school until her mother tells her not to.
- She continues to read and finds a book about lesbians. She starts to think that she might be one.
- She finds a guy she kind of knows and asks him straight out to sleep with her.
- She gets laid.
- It is no big deal, as in, that the excitement was way overrated.
- She gets pregnant.
- Maya is pregnant and no one knows.
- Bailey is all over the world in the Merchant Marines.
- Maya graduates from high school and then tells Daddy Clidell that she is preggers. He is very cool about the whole thing and tells her not to worry.
- Maya has a son and loves him very much.
- She feels a comfortable bond that has been eluding her through childhood and will take her into adulthood.
Things To Make You Look Smart
- Find out some information on the South and it’s racist attitudes. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. and his teachings. Look into the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). Connect those days to the attitudes of today and see if there is a difference in the way that most people think.
- Make notes of all the conversations in the book. The way people talk is very important to the book and people in Stamps converse differently than people in St. Louis. Local talk is all over the book so examples should be easy to find. What does language say to you about these people? Keep in mind that Setting is closely related.
- Explore how the black female is pressed as a young girl by men’s machismo (a mans world), white hatred of black people, and black people’s lack of social power.