“Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for good, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger.” (27)
By comparing the Store to a present or gift, Maya shows how important it is to her. She wasn’t expecting or looking forward to this present, and so it is even more appreciated.
“Without waiting for Momma’s thanks, he rode out of the yard, sure that things were as they should be and that he was a gentle squire, saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned.” (31)
In this metaphor Maya compares the white sheriff who warns Momma about the Klu Klux Klan to “a gentle squire.” While on the surface this seems like a positive comparison, Maya is actually full of contempt for the man. She resents that he thinks Uncle Willie and other Black men should all flee in fear of the Klan, rather than stand and defend themselves. She also resents that the sheriff thinks he should be commended for warning them. He sees himself as a savior or messiah, whereas Maya views him as another complicit participant in acts of racial violence. Thus, Maya comparing the sheriff to a gentle squire that is protective of his tenants smacks of sarcasm and irony.
“But Uncle Willie was suffering under our father’s bombastic pressure, and in mother-bird fashion Momma was more concerned with her crippled offspring than the one who could fly away from the nest.” (97)
Maya likens Momma to a mother bird in this metaphor because of how she treats Uncle Willie. Daddy Bailey, with his slick and smooth personality, intimidates his slow moving, somewhat awkward brother and makes him feel ashamed. Like a mother hen protecting her young, Momma is aware of the emotional and psychological danger Daddy Bailey presents to Uncle Willie, and thus is eager for Daddy Bailey to leave.
“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.” (98)
Mother is a powerful and visually arresting woman. Once people enter her orbit, she has the power to beguile them, and sweep them off of their feet. For these reasons, the metaphor of Mother as a hurricane or a rainbow is apt. Like a hurricane, Mother can be powerful and dangerous, but there is something about her that pulls people in, sometimes against their will. Alternatively, like a beautiful rainbow, she can appear beautiful yet harmless, and charm those around her.
“We were like actors who, knowing the play by heart, were still able to cry afresh over the old tragedies and laugh spontaneously at the comic situations. The miserable little encounter had nothing to do with me, the me of me, any more than it had to do with that silly clerk. The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. Also because the play must end somewhere.” (443)
In this simile Maya compares racism and the situations it creates to a tragic play where everyone knows the denouement. Even though she and the clerk of the streetcar office have no personal history or disagreement, they must have a conflict with one another because racism dictates it. She compares the pair of them to Hamlet and Laertes from Shakespeare’s famous play, two characters doomed to fight because of their ancestor’s mistakes. This series of comparisons is particularly poignant because it successfully describes racism. Racism’s continued prevalence in modern times is the inability of contemporary people to recognize and take responsibility for the terrible actions of their ancestors. Instead of repudiating those actions, people replicate and repeat them, dooming us all to reenactments of racism’s tragic play.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.