In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes her coming of age as a precocious but insecure black girl in the American South during the 1930s and subsequently in California during the 1940s. Maya’s parents divorce when she is only three years old and ship Maya and her older brother, Bailey, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in rural Stamps, Arkansas. Annie, whom they call Momma, runs the only store in the black section of Stamps and becomes the central moral figure in Maya’s childhood.
As young children, Maya and Bailey struggle with the pain of having been rejected and abandoned by their parents. Maya also finds herself tormented by the belief that she is an ugly child who will never measure up to genteel, white girls. She does not feel equal to other black children. One Easter Sunday, Maya is unable to finish reciting a poem in church, and self-consciously feeling ridiculed and a failure, Maya races from the church crying, laughing, and wetting herself. Bailey sticks up for Maya when people actually make fun of her to her face, wielding his charisma to put others in their place.
Growing up in Stamps, Maya faces a deep-seated southern racism manifested in wearying daily indignities and terrifying lynch mobs. She spends time at Momma’s store, observing the cotton-pickers as they journey to and from work in the fields. When Maya is eight, her father, of whom she has no memory, arrives in Stamps unexpectedly and takes her and Bailey to live with their mother, Vivian, in St. Louis, Missouri. Beautiful and alluring, Vivian lives a wild life working in gambling parlors. One morning Vivian’s live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually molests Maya, and he later rapes her. They go to court and afterward Mr. Freeman is violently murdered, probably by some the underground criminal associates of Maya’s family.
In the aftermath of these events, Maya endures the guilt and shame of having been sexually abused. She also believes that she bears responsibility for Mr. Freeman’s death because she denied in court that he had molested her prior to the rape. Believing that she has become a mouthpiece for the devil, Maya stops speaking to everyone except Bailey. Her mother’s family accepts her silence at first as temporary post-rape trauma, but they later become frustrated and angry at what they perceive to be disrespectful behavior.
To Maya’s relief, but Bailey’s regret, Maya and Bailey return to Stamps to live with Momma. Momma manages to break through Maya’s silence by introducing her to Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a kind, educated woman who tells Maya to read works of literature out loud, giving her books of poetry that help her to regain her voice.
During these years in Stamps, Maya becomes aware of both the fragility and the strength of her community. She attends a church revival during which a priest preaches implicitly against white hypocrisy through his sermon on charity. The spiritual strength gained during the sermon soon dissipates as the revival crowd walks home past the honky-tonk party. Maya also observes the entire community listening to the Joe Louis heavyweight championship boxing match, desperately longing for him to defend his title against his white opponent.
Maya endures several appalling incidents that teach her about the insidious nature of racism. At age ten, Maya takes a job for a white woman who calls Maya “Mary” for her own convenience. Maya becomes enraged and retaliates by breaking the woman’s fine china. At Maya’s eighth grade graduation, a white speaker devastates the proud community by explaining that black students are expected to become only athletes or servants. When Maya gets a rotten tooth, Momma takes her to the only dentist in Stamps, a white man who insults her, saying he’d rather place his hand in a dog’s mouth than in hers. The last straw comes when Bailey encounters a dead, rotting black man and witnesses a white man’s satisfaction at seeing the body. Momma begins to fear for the children’s well-being and saves money to bring them to Vivian, who now lives in California.
When Maya is thirteen, the family moves to live with Vivian in Los Angeles and then in Oakland, California. When Vivian marries Daddy Clidell, a positive father figure, they move with him to San Francisco, the first city where Maya feels at home. She spends one summer with her father, Big Bailey, in Los Angeles and has to put up with his cruel indifference and his hostile girlfriend, Dolores. After Dolores cuts her in a fight, Maya runs away and lives for a month with a group of homeless teenagers in a junkyard. She returns to San Francisco strong and self-assured. She defies racist hiring policies in wartime San Francisco to become the first black streetcar conductor at age fifteen. At sixteen, she hides her pregnancy from her mother and stepfather for eight months and graduates from high school. The account ends as Maya begins to feel confident as a mother to her newborn son.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Racism and Segregation
Maya confronts the insidious effects of racism and segregation in America at a very young age. She internalizes the idea that blond hair is beautiful and that she is a fat black girl trapped in a nightmare. Stamps, Arkansas, is so thoroughly segregated that as a child Maya does not quite believe that white people exist. As Maya gets older, she is confronted by more overt and personal incidents of racism, such as a white speaker’s condescending address at her eighth-grade graduation, her white boss’s insistence on calling her Mary, and a white dentist’s refusal to treat her. The importance of Joe Louis’s world championship boxing match to the black community reveals the dearth of publicly recognized African American heroes. It also demonstrates the desperate nature of the black community’s hope for vindication through the athletic triumph of one man. These unjust social realities confine and demean Maya and her relatives. She comes to learn how the pressures of living in a thoroughly racist society have profoundly shaped the character of her family members, and she strives to surmount them.
Maya is shuttled around to seven different homes between the ages of three and sixteen: from California to Stamps to St. Louis to Stamps to Los Angeles to Oakland to San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Francisco. As expressed in the poem she tries to recite on Easter, the statement “I didn’t come to stay” becomes her shield against the cold reality of her rootlessness. Besieged by the “tripartite crossfire” of racism, sexism, and power, young Maya is belittled and degraded at every turn, making her unable to put down her shield and feel comfortable staying in one place. When she is thirteen and moves to San Francisco with her mother, Bailey, and Daddy Clidell, she feels that she belongs somewhere for the first time. Maya identifies with the city as a town full of displaced people.
Maya’s personal displacement echoes the larger societal forces that displaced blacks all across the country. She realizes that thousands of other terrified black children made the same journey as she and Bailey, traveling on their own to newly affluent parents in northern cities, or back to southern towns when the North failed to supply the economic prosperity it had promised. African Americans descended from slaves who were displaced from their homes and homelands in Africa, and following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, blacks continued to struggle to find their place in a country still hostile to their heritage.
Resistance to Racism
Black peoples’ resistance to racism takes many forms in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Momma maintains her dignity by seeing things realistically and keeping to herself. Big Bailey buys flashy clothes and drives a fancy car to proclaim his worth and runs around with women to assert his masculinity in the face of dehumanizing and emasculating racism. Daddy Clidell’s friends learn to use white peoples’ prejudice against them in elaborate and lucrative cons. Vivian’s family cultivates toughness and establishes connections to underground forces that deter any harassment. Maya first experiments with resistance when she breaks her white employer’s heirloom china. Her bravest act of defiance happens when she becomes the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Blacks also used the church as a venue of subversive resistance. At the revival, the preacher gives a thinly veiled sermon criticizing whites’ charity, and the community revels in the idea of white people burning in hell for their actions.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Strong Black Women
Though Maya struggles with insecurity and displacement throughout her childhood, she has a remarkable number of strong female role models in her family and community. Momma, Vivian, Grandmother Baxter, and Bertha Flowers have very different personalities and views on life, but they all chart their own paths and manage to maintain their dignity and self-respect. None of them ever capitulates to racist indignities.
Maya also charts her own path, fighting to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and she does so with the support and encouragement of her female predecessors. Maya notes at the end of Chapter 34 that the towering character of the black American woman should be seen as the predictable outcome of a hard-fought struggle. Many black women fall along the way. The ones who can weather the storm of sexism and racism obviously will shine with greatness. They have survived, and therefore by definition they are survivors.
Maya’s first love is William Shakespeare. Throughout her life, literature plays a significant role in bolstering her confidence and providing a world of fantasy and escape. When feeling isolated in St. Louis, she takes refuge in the library. She describes Mrs. Bertha Flowers as being like women in English novels. Mrs. Flowers helps Maya rediscover her voice after her rape by encouraging her to use the words of other writers and poets. Maya continually quotes and refers to the literature she read throughout her childhood. For instance, at one point she simply gives San Francisco the title “Pride and Prejudice” without referring specifically to Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. Bailey appreciates Maya’s love of literature. He often presents her with gifts, such as the book of Edgar Allen Poe’s work that he and Maya read aloud while walking in their backyard in Stamps.
Maya’s real name is Marguerite, and most of her family members call her Ritie. The fact that she chooses to go by Maya as an adult, a name given to her by her brother, Bailey, indicates the depth of love and admiration she holds for him. When Maya reunites with her mother and her mother’s family in St. Louis at age eight, one of her uncles tells her the story of how she got this name. Thus, finding her family is connected with finding her name and her identity. Indeed, for African Americans in general, Maya notes, naming is a sensitive issue because it provides a sense of identity in a hostile world that aims to stereotype blacks and erase their individuality and identity. Consequently, given the predominance of pejoratives like nigger so often used to cut down blacks, Maya notes the danger associated with calling a black person anything that could be loosely interpreted as insulting. Besides the obvious fact that Mrs. Cullinan does not take the time to get Maya’s name right in the first place, Mrs. Cullinan wishes to manipulate Maya’s name for her own convenience, shortening it to Mary, illustrating that she cares very little about Maya’s wishes or identity. Maya becomes enraged, and the incident inspires her to commit her first act of resistance.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Momma’s store is a central gathering place in Stamps and the center of Maya’s childhood. There she witnesses the cycles of nature and labor, tending to workers in the cotton-picking season and canners during the killing season. Maya notes that until she left Arkansas for good at age thirteen, the Store was her favorite place to be. It symbolizes the rewards of hard work and loyalty and the importance of a strong and devout community.
Maya’s Easter Dress
The lavender taffeta dress that Momma alters for Maya on Easter symbolizes Maya’s lack of love for herself and her wish for acceptance through transformation. She believes that beauty means white beauty. Hanging by the sewing machine, the dress looks magical. Maya imagines that the dress will reveal her true self to people who will then be shocked by her beauty. Harsh reality strikes on Easter morning, however, when she realizes that the dress is only a white woman’s throwaway that cannot wake her from her black nightmare. Maya learns that her transformation will have to take place from within.