Then they would face another day of trying to earn enough for the whole year with the heavy knowledge that they were going to end the season as they started it. Without the money or credit necessary to sustain a family for three months.
The “they” in this quote refers to the Black cotton pickers that shop in the Store. Like many Black descendants of former slaves, the Stamps’ cotton pickers are trapped in a vicious debt cycle. They don’t own the land they work on, but rather work it for white landowners. The landowners provide the land, housing, tools, and seed as a loan. By the end of the picking season, the workers must have picked enough cotton to pay back the landowners, pay off their credit at the Store, and have enough remaining funds to see their family through the winter. This is already a tall order, and is further complicated because the cotton workers receive only half (maybe less) of the profits accrued from picking. Thus the workers “end the season as they started it,” poor and in debt.
He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame.
Uncle Willie is the focus of this quote. As a Black crippled man, he has two identity markers that negatively impact his place in society. As Maya says earlier in the book, being an able-bodied Black man is already a struggle. Uncle Willie’s disability adds a new dimension to his struggles. In this quote, Maya speculates that perhaps Uncle Willie grew tired of being “the cripple” in his community, and so when the Store has customers from out of town, he pretends he doesn’t have a disability.
It is significant that Maya compares Uncle Willie’s life to that of a prisoner or a guilty person. It suggests that Uncle Willie feels trapped in his body and ashamed of his situation. It also suggests that perhaps society treats him the same way they treat criminals—with scorn, fear, and righteous anger.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.
Segregation in Stamps is so absolute that many Black children don’t know what white people look like. Hence, Maya says she once believed that white people were not real.
I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country.
When Maya and Bailey first arrive in St. Louis, the city’s modern technology and diversity of food options blow them away. For kids that have spent most of their lives in rural Arkansas, St. Louis’ flushing toilets, packaged foods, and multitude of cars, trains, and buses seem like artifacts from a “foreign country.”
Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.
This quote showcases Mrs. Flowers’ philosophical mind and her excellent ability to read people. Thus far, Maya’s family has tried to make her speak by cajoling her, punishing her, and ignoring her, all with no success. Mrs. Flowers figures out that in order to get Maya to speak again, she must make Maya desire to speak again. She knows Maya has a love of literature, and tells the girl that books take on new and deeper meaning when read aloud. Maya begins the road to recovering her voice because she wants to tap into these deeper meanings in the literature she reads.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Maya has grappled with insecurity and self-repudiation her entire youth. Being viewed and liked because she was Bailey’s sister or Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild has not helped Maya deal with these feelings, but rather made them worse. Thus, when Mrs. Flowers seeks out Maya (and only Maya) and befriends her, Maya feels for the first time that she is liked and respected for being her. This is an important step in Maya’s development.
Her name’s Margaret, goddamn it, her name’s Margaret.
This quote is important because it shows that Mrs. Cullinan didn’t just “forget” Maya’s real name. Rather, she was using her own name for Maya to show her supremacy and power over the young girl. After Maya shatters Mrs. Cullinan’s prized family heirloom, Mrs. Cullinan relinquishes the illusion of control she thought she had over Maya. Mrs. Cullinan’s use of "Margaret" and not "Mary" symbolizes the shift in power from Mrs. Cullinan to Maya.
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life.
These are heartfelt and bitter words torn from Maya’s soul during her school graduation. This sentence sums up the lives of Black Southerners during the early to mid-1900s. White supremacy, expressed in Jim Crow laws, made Black people second-class citizens with a limited amount of opportunities. Maya feels this low glass ceiling acutely during Mr. Donleavy’s speech, when he reminds the Black students of Stamps that they are expected to be athletes or hired help. Because of Donleavy’s speech, Maya feels that she has no control over her life choices and is incapable of achieving her dreams.
The colored men backed off and I did too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?
Bailey asks a question that has no clear answer in this quote. After witnessing and experiencing firsthand white brutality against Black people, he wonders what Black people could have done to warrant such hatred. Uncle Willie is somewhat at a loss, and simply tells Bailey that white people aren’t hateful, but scared. This quote reveals the senselessness and unexplainable aspect of racism, and also marks the end of Bailey’s innocence.
We are the victims of the world’s most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It’s all right if we do a little robbing now.
In this quote Maya discusses the actions of Black con artists who specifically target white con artists for revenge. These white con artists are typically guilty of “fleecing” vulnerable Black people, and so the Black con artists feel justified. Maya takes it a step further, and argues that because Black Americans lost so much during slavery, and continue to lose in modern America, some reparations are in order. She views the actions of the Black con artists as just desserts, as the righting of wrongs, and as a balancing act.
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.
There is the promise for hope in the morning. There is a sense of nature's promise of life and the gentle birth of another day. By the afternoon, pickers are burdened and tired with sufferings, poverty, and loss of hope.