I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary and Analysis
by Maya Angelou
Introduction to Chapter 6
Maya recalls an Easter Sunday at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Arkansas. Her mother makes her a special Easter dress from lavender taffeta, and Maya thinks the dress will make her look like the blond-haired blue-eyed movie star that she wishes, deep down, to be. But, the dress turns out to be drab and ugly, as Maya laments that she is black, and unattractive as well. She leaves her church pew to go to the bathroom, and doesn't make it; she runs from the church, ashamed, but glad to be out of church and away from the children who torment her, and make her childhood even harder than it already is.
One of the main themes of this chapter is race and appearance; Maya already establishes that she wanted to be a movie-star looking white girl as a child, and tried to deny her real appearance. Connected with the idea of race is beauty, as Maya describes images of blond hair and blue eyes as the paragon of beauty, and says her appearance is merely a "black ugly dream" that she will wake out of.
Maya seems to have been an imaginative child, as she envisions her "head [bursting] like a dropped watermelon" from trying to hold her bladder. Angelou shows a talent for using images to explain and clarify feelings, and employing her descriptive powers to make even mundane incidents very vivid.
This autobiography, which covers Maya's life from age 3 to age 16, is often considered a bildungsroman since it is primarily a tale of youth and growing into young adulthood. However, unlike a typical, novel-form bildungsroman, the story does not end with the achievement of adulthood; Angelou continues to write about her life in four other volumes, all addressing her life chronologically from her childhood to the accomplishments of her adulthood. It is important to keep in mind that this is an autobiography, rather than a novel, and that the narrator and the author are indeed one and the same, and the events described in the book are intended to relate a very personal portrait of a person's life.
Maya says that when she was three years old and her brother was four, they were sent from their father in California to their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. They were eventually embraced by the town, and lived at the back of the store that their grandmother and uncle owned and ran. Their grandmother's store is the center of life in the Negro community of the town, being the pick-up and drop-off point for cotton pickers in picking season.
Angelou tells of the little sensory details that make her life working and living in the store an adventure for a young girl. She recalls the smells, and unfamiliarity of the place, and the constant stream of people who made the place seem exciting and almost magical. However, the theme of romance vs. reality soon becomes plain; for even as the cotton pickers come in each morning, happy and boastful, each afternoon they come back bitter and wondering how to make enough money to make ends meet. Angelou notes the difference between the wonderful mornings and the hard reality of the afternoons, knowing that however things might seem, there are always the harsh facts of life to face.
The difficulty of being black in the South is a theme that is important throughout the work; financially, it is difficult to make ends meet, and black people also face social hardship. Even in the intro to the work, Angelou reminds us that living in the segregated South during this time is never easy; not even to a child, and not even with wonderful sights and sounds around at the store.
Maya and her brother recite their times tables for their Uncle Willie, who was crippled as a child and whose left side of his body is shriveled and deformed. Maya and her brother are disturbed by his disability, though his mother, Maya's grandmother, blames God but accepts her son. Things are more difficult for him, since able-bodied men are hardly able to make a living and take their insecurities out on him, and because he too is ashamed of being crippled. Maya recalls the one time that he manages to pretend that he wasn't crippled, and empathizes with him because of his hardships.
She also starts reading and enjoying literature while she is in Stamps, Shakespeare especially. She also enjoys the works of many prominent black authors, which her Momma, or grandmother, approves more of. Although young Maya likes Shakespeare, and is fine with the fact that he is white, her Momma wouldn't want to know that Maya enjoys a white man's work.
The story of Uncle Willie shows how important appearance is in how people are treated and thought of. Because Uncle Willie is so obviously crippled, most men treat him badly; perhaps the envy that he is not able-bodied and still has a better living than they do. His disability is something that he cannot escape from, except for the one time that Angelou speaks of here. The way people judge him based on appearance is certainly unfair, but similar to how black people are treated, just because of their color. Prejudice is a theme that the novel cannot avoid, because Angelou herself will have to deal with the prejudice that goes along with her black skin for all of her life, and, like Uncle Willie's handicap, it is not something that she can simply shrug off.
The great importance of the issue of race is very clear when Angelou says her Momma would not want her to read Shakespeare because he is white. Race is made into such a big, pervasive issue in the South, that it can affect even how people view such apparently non-inflammatory things as Shakespeare's plays. Momma's reaction might be unfair in some ways, but since great injustice has been perpetrated on the issue of race, this merely shows how deeply this unfairness can hurt people.
Angelou continues to tell of the store, and her work there; it is her favorite place during her childhood, and filled with great magic as she grows up. During the day she works in the store, measuring out dry goods for customers; in the evening, she helps to feed the hogs and chickens they keep.
One night while she is feeding the animals, Mr. Steward, the white former sheriff, rides up to the store; he tells Momma to have Willie stay inside and out of sight, since a black man messed with a white woman earlier that day, and some of the white men from the town will probably get revenge' by making trouble in the black part of town. Maya overhears this exchange, and is afraid of what might happen. She also dislikes Mr. Steward for being condescending and thinking that the black men of the town were servile cowards, who would just crawl away when the white folks got angry.
Momma has Willie hide in a vegetable bin, and the children help to cover him with potatoes and onions. It isn't a good cover, since Willie keeps making noise, but it makes them feel safe, like it could protect Willie from being lynched if any of the white men came to drag him out.
Angelou displays her keen powers of description, as she tells of her love for chocolate Kisses, and the pineapple upside-down cakes that her Momma makes at Christmas. The descriptions are rich with sensory images, and are reminders of a child's joy at the little things in life.
Again, Angelou associates mornings with newness and magic, and afternoons and evenings as more real times, when people were tired and had done a hard day's work. But in this chapter, she tells of some of the more harsh realities that she begins to learn, like the lynch mobs that occasionally come for innocent black men. Mr. Steward is a symbol of the condescension that many whites in the book have for black people; and the "boys" tell of the great hatred that some white people have, and how this hatred can distort a person completely. The image of Uncle Willie under the potatoes, unable to help drooling on the potatoes, is both pathetic and empathetic; he shouldn't have to hide in such an undignified way, and he also should not have to fear a violent reprisal for an act he did not commit.
Angelou recalls a neighbor of theirs, Mr. McElroy, who was the first black man she ever knew to wear a suit. She and her brother liked him because he liked to talk to Uncle Willie, and also was not religiouswhich of course they could not be, since their Momma was very devout. He stands out, since he has money and a house to himself, and never talks to Maya, except to say good morning or good evening.
Then, she talks about her great love for her brother. They are opposite in appearance, with him being more attractive and graceful, and he even gets a little revenge on those people who call his sister ugly'. Her brother keeps her from being lonely, and their friendship is vitally important to the young Maya.
Then the winter canning and preserving is described, as people make sausages and cure meat to last through the winter, as well as can their summer vegetables to last until the next harvest. Then, Angelou describes going into the white part of town, to buy fresh meat that their Momma thought they should have on occasion. She didn't like to leave her part of town, as the white people were unfriendly and foreign to her. In fact, she says that most blacks had little or nothing to do with the white people across town, and didn't even think of them as being real people like they wereprejudice goes both ways, since neither group can try to understand the other with segregation in place.
Angelou addresses the theme of the influence of childhood; the knowledge and experience gained from childhood affects the rest of your life, as the events that Angelou portrays in the book, however small or seemingly insignificant, will shape her perceptions for the rest of her life. Also, the fact that she can remember the many smells and sights of the store shows that these little memories have also become important in her memory of her life.
The contrast in the appearances of Maya and her brother shows that they are very different people; however, they also compliment each other, and learn to love each other as they are. Maya's great affection for her brother introduces the theme of family ties, which is very influential in her life. Her bond with her brother is the most important friendship of her childhood years, and helps her get through some difficult times. The diction used to describe him tells of an active, lively, friendly person: Angelou describes him "spinning, falling, laughing," doing "daring and interesting things." He is her "Kingdom Come," the metaphor telling of just how much she admires and loves him.
The extent of segregation is shown by the fact that young Maya, and most of the people she knew, didn't regard white people as peoplethey were just "whitefolks," alien beings. Angelou discusses the theme of segregation, and how racial segregation not only perpetuated societal divisions, but economic and political inferiority for the black citizens of the town. Their dislike and distrust for white people was based in hostility at being made inferior, as well as being a reaction against mistreatment. It is ironic that black people thought that white people weren't real, when they had such indisputable and tangible power over the lives of the black people in the town.
Angelou recalls how Momma used to make them bathe and wash constantly, even in cold water in wintertime. She used to insist on them being respectful and clean, which most people were, except for the "powhitetrash" children that came into the town. Those that came to the store were often very rude, but young Maya and her family are not allowed to say anything, because they are black.
Then, she tells of her grandmother's unfailing subservience around even the white children, and how this frustrated her to no end. When a few white girls come from the school to the store, Maya begs her grandmother to go inside, and she will deal with the girls. Momma, however, insists on standing outside the door as they come; the girls mock her and are rude, and then one does a handstand, showing off the fact that she isn't wearing any underwear. Maya is enraged at the girls' behavior, but Momma stands there and doesn't say anything; and when the girls leave, she even calls them "Miz," and says goodbye to them. Maya doesn't think her grandmother should demean herself this way, but somehow, Momma triumphs over the girls by standing her ground and not getting angry.
This chapter shows the contrast between the discipline and manners that a black child was expected to have, and the lack of restraint on white children, in young Maya's experience. They are rude and disorderly and abuse their privilege of being white, ordering Uncle Willie about the store in a shameful way. The theme of racial differences becomes very apparent here, as for the first time black and white people come into contact, and are shown to be very different. Even though Momma Henderson owns the land they live on, she cannot reprimand them for their rudeness or disorder; such is the influence of racial codes, that allow privileges to whites just for being white, even when these privileges are abused.
The differences between the old codes of obedient behavior that black people had to observe, and the frustration of young people with these codes, is shown through the juxtaposition of Momma's and Maya's reactions to the young girls who come to the store. But, after Momma's "triumph" over the girls, it seems as though people can be more dignified even if they follow these outdated and insulting codes. Young Maya's anger is justified and understandable, but is anger the best way to fight ignorance in this case? That social codes are being questioned, and perhaps cast aside, is an important theme in the book; this questioning will change race relations, and inevitably lead to friction.
Angelou recalls the visits of Reverend Thomas, an obese old pastor who would come to their church four times a year, stay with them, and eat huge amounts of her grandmother's cooking. Neither Maya nor her brother liked him, because he always forgot their names, ate everything, and wasn't too pleasant to be around. The good part of his visit, though, was that Momma would talk about recent gossip with him, which Maya and her brother would eavesdrop on, and loved to hear. Then, she tells of amusing incidents in the church, and of how she would ignore Rev. Thomas in church, since she didn't like listening to his sermons.
A woman named Sister Monroe had a tendency to interrupt the sermons and attack whoever was preaching; these incidents are highly amusing to Maya and her brother, but when they laugh at one of these episodes, they are whipped by Uncle Willie. Though the incident was funny, they are expected by their aunt to behave in church, even when something absurd happens.
The extent of Angelou's religious upbringing is shown by the fact that she is unfailingly polite to Reverend Thomas because he is God's representative, although she actually hates him. Religion is an important theme in her early life at least, since her Momma is such a religious woman, and teaches the children to love and respect God and the church.
Religion is also important for the town as a whole, as it seems it is the center of the black community, and a place where everyone goes and socializes. The Sister Monroe incident just shows how some people throw themselves into the church experience, and how important people felt it was to get to church every week, which Sister Monroe felt she had to make up for. But, although Sister Monroe gets obnoxious and even violent, children are still expected to have perfect manners, according to their customs; they are supposed to be seen and not heard. The fact that Maya and her brother Bailey are punished for violating this rule shows how strict their Momma is, but how strict their society is in enforcing these rules of decorum for children.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Essays and Related Content
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Major Themes
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Questions
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Maya Angelou: Biography
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary
- About I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Introduction to Chapter 6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-24
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25-30
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-36
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources