I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary and Analysis
by Maya Angelou
The store is crammed with people listening to a Joe Louis fight on the radio; he is fighting a white man, and of course they all support Joe Louis because he is black. His victory means everything to them; they pin their hopes for dignity and equality on it, and are very happy when Louis does win the fight. "Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world" by winning the fight, Angelou said; his victory gives hope to the people of Stamps, though whether it will really change anything is unclear.
Again, we see the citizens of Stamps making themselves feel better about their own situations by listening to a fight where the black contestant is victorious. That Angelou compares Louis being defeated to "our people falling" or being "back in slavery" is overstatement; it implies that things will instantly improve or get horrible based on merely this fight, which doesn't seem completely logical. The Louis fight symbolizes their own fight for equality, which will soon take center stage with the Civil Rights movement; and although his victory might lead to greater respect for black athletes, and maybe spread to the black community in some way, certainly won't change everything with just a boxing match. The outcome, though it might make small gains for them, certainly will not be as overwhelming as Angelou in particular envisions it to be.
It is summer, and the whole town is at the summer picnic fish fry at the pond, the biggest event of the year in Stamps. Everyone is there, plenty of picnic food and desserts laid out, while men catch the fish and women fry them. Maya is not in a particularly celebratory mood, so she escapes to a clearing and is surprised to be found by Louise Kendricks, a girl she knows from school. Maya wants to run away and find another spot, but Louise befriends her, and both start playing together in the clearing. Louise becomes Maya's first friend, other than Bailey of course, and around her Maya is able to become a giggly, happy girl like she hasn't been before.
One day, Maya receives a valentine from Tommy Valdon, a nice boy from the town. Maya reacts negatively, because her experience has led her to think that a male having interest in her is necessarily a bad thing. She shows the letter to her friend Louise, and Louise explains that it is a sign of affection, being asked to be a valentine; Maya tears the note up, and decides to have nothing to do with it. The next day, valentines from the class above are delivered, and are read aloud in front of the class. Tommy sends another one to Maya, saying that although he knows she tore up the note, he will still think of her as his valentine. Maya thinks this note is sweet and decides to be nice to him, but only manages to giggle when she sees him.
The images associated with this annual fish-fry are colorful and joyful; girls run around in their pretty picnic dresses, a huge variety of food is laid out neatly on tables, and everyone is doing something, whether playing, cooking, fishing, or talking. This chapter is dense with sight and sound imagery, and Angelou paints the activity of the scene deftly, with colorful descriptions.
So far in the novel, friendship has played very little part in Angelou's story; motherhood has been a significant theme, with Maya's real mother and surrogate mothers figuring prominently, and the desire for a father figure, who is mostly absent, has also been a theme. This friendship with Louise is the first friendship that Angelou mentions in the text, and one of the few; familial relations are very important in her life and development, but the presence of friendship, other than with Bailey, is mostly absent.
Although Maya is about 10 in this scene, it is obvious that being raped has made her very wary and distrustful of boys. She can only understand Tommy's note in terms of her experience, which has been very traumatic; so, she reacts with as much revulsion to the note as she does to her unpleasant memories. Although Maya is just a girl, because of her misfortune she thinks of male-female relationships only in terms of sex; she is denied the childlike innocence about these things that other children have, and is almost cursed by knowing far too much than she should have to.
Bailey makes a tent in the backyard, where he plays "momma and poppa" with some of the girls, and they simulate sex; Maya is the designated lookout at these games. After a few months of these goings-on, Bailey meets Joyce, a girl 4 years older than him (he is 11, she is 15). She lives with a poor aunt in town, and is very physically developed for her age. Joyce begins to hang about the store and runs errands for them, mainly to be around Bailey.
Bailey and Joyce decide to play house, and Bailey is confused when she suggests having real sex rather than just the child's play he has been engaging in. Maya is scared that Bailey even thinks of doing this, although he and Joyce don't actually do it. Bailey begins to steal more and more from the store for Joyce, and she hangs around the store but does little work anymore. Her and Bailey's relationship seems to be an exchange, of food for affection, and Bailey is very happy with their friendship.
Joyce leaves suddenly, and Bailey is very upset. He becomes sullen, and Maya actually wants her back, since Bailey was more pleasant while she was around. Turns out that Joyce ran off with a railroad porter she met in the store, and this makes Bailey jealous and even more unhappy to hear the news.
Again, Maya's experience of rape is shown to completely color her idea of sex. She believes that her experience is typical of sex, and that since she had to go to the hospital and it was traumatic, that it would be the same for anyone. However, Bailey's experience contrasts sharply with Maya's; he thinks that sex must be more of a positive thing, and despite his play with Joyce and the girls, he is still youthfully ignorant about it. Still, this chapter highlights the theme of growing up, and of the experiences, mistakes, and new knowledge that make up this process.
It is a stormy night, meaning that they get to close the store early and stay inside, with Momma and Uncle Willie. Maya and Bailey are reading, when there is a knock on the back door; it is George Taylor, an older neighbor of theirs whose wife had recently died. They invite him in for dinner, and Momma counsels him to try and cheer up since there is no bringing his wife back. Mr. Taylor is obviously troubled about something, and tells them about something his dead wife said to him the other day. Maya dislikes all the superstitious tales that people in Stamps here, and doesn't particularly want to listen to the story.
Florida Taylor, George's wife, had died during the previous summer. Maya is forced to go to the funeral, because Mrs. Taylor left her a fake-gold brooch in her will, and Momma thinks this obligates her to attend the service, at least. At the funeral, Maya is confronted with the reality of death for the first time; she never considered before that she herself could die, not just old people. During the service, the preacher opens the coffin and directs his eulogy directly at the corpse; this disturbs Maya as well as Mr. Taylor, who thinks this is an improper thing to do.
The funeral-goes file around to the casket; Maya has to go too, although she loathes the thought of seeing a dead body. She realizes when she sees Mrs. Taylor's body, how strong and how final death is. It disturbs her and interests her, as she grasps how transient life really is.
Angelou then goes back to Mr. Taylor's ghost story; Mr. Taylor says he saw a baby angel the night before, and heard the voice of his dead wife. His wife's voice said to him "I want some children," and Mr. Taylor tells the story in as much eerie detail as he is able to conjure up. The story scares Maya, though she tries her best to stay calm. Momma and Uncle Willie do their best to interpret this vision for Mr. Taylor, and Maya spends the night frightened of the story she has heard.
This chapter shows the belief in ghosts and spirits that is also common in this very religious community. Death also becomes real to Maya, which is always an important realization during childhood; the theme of mortality is first introduced here, though it is not one of the more important themes of the book.
Again, Angelou uses vivid descriptions of the sight and sound imagery of the scene, as well as mentioning the "scent of decay" that pervades the room. Angelou describes how Mrs. Taylor has been silenced forever, and her "plump brown face had been deflated and patted flat like a cow's ordurous dropping". Both the image and the metaphor conjured by this description are strange; comparing her dead face to a cow dropping reinforces the imagery of decay, and Angelou familiarizes this unsettling sight by comparing it to something more common in her experience. The image of the "mud baby" reinforces the impermanence of life, a realization which Maya first becomes familiar with through this experience.
It seems from Angelou's description that belief in religion and belief in superstition go hand-in-hand in the South. Perhaps it is ironic that someone who believes in God might also believe in hauntings and ghosts, since these seem occult in origin. Momma and Uncle Willie go so far as to embrace this tale and try to find a meaning, showing that not only do they believe in ghosts, they think that these supernatural happenings are also meant for a reason.
Graduation day is soon approaching, with ceremonies held for those finishing 8th grade, and those leaving high school. The seniors are allowed to be a little lazy and forget their work, as everyone in the town is getting ready for the big event. Maya is graduating from 8th grade, which means the people in the store are very encouraging, and many give her dimes and nickels. Maya is happy for the first time in a while, and really looking forward to the future and whatever it has in store.
Maya is at the top of her class, though her competitor Henry Reed gets to be valedictorian. Smaller children present plays, and all the students not graduating are helping with preparations for the big event. Finally, the day arrives; the graduating students get dressed up, and their families watch the ceremonies in a crowded auditorium. Then, Maya has a feeling that something bad will happen during the ceremony.
Mr. Edward Donleavy, a kind of school superintendent, is the graduation speaker. He tells of the improvements and opportunities coming to the white school in town, Central High; then, he mentions that two recent graduates of the Lafayette County Training School are now successful athletes. Maya feels completely insulted; although white boys and girls get plenty of opportunities, Mr. Donleavy seems to say that the best black boys can do is to become athletes, and doesn't even mention the girls. Most of the people in the auditorium take the speech uneasily because of this; it crushes the celebratory spirit of the ceremony, and certainly ruins the whole thing for Maya.
Henry Reed delivers his address to the class, as planned; then, he starts to sing the "Negro National Anthem," which is banned from being sung at public events. People join in and sing, and the condescension of Mr. Donleavy is purged. Maya is suddenly proud to be black, and feels a part of the black community for possibly the first time.
This chapter presents a very different picture of Maya than when she arrived from St. Louis; she smiles, is content, and even looks forward to the coming years. There is a contrast in the colors and images of Stamps; whereas before all the sounds and colors were faded to her, now they are "strong and sure," reflecting Maya's change of heart.
Racism is a theme that is hardly ever absent from Angelou's story; and even on graduation day, it makes itself present. The graduating classes are harshly reminded of the limits on their futures, just because they are black; they are not expected to attain professional careers, and the girls aren't expected to do anything but become wives and mothers. As much as they might aspire, the reality is that there are firm limits on what they can do in society, simply because of their skin color; Maya is repulsed by this idea, that the fate of her schoolmates is already decided because of prejudice.
Angelou alludes to Gabriel Prosser, George Washington Carver, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman to show examples of black Americans who were able to achieve, despite society's biases. But, even they are rare examples of success. Angelou's statement that "we should all be dead" is highly charged, but expresses the unfairness that entire races are judged by their appearance, and what an aberration this system is.
The allusions to Hamlet in Henry Reed's speech are ironic, coming after Mr. Donleavy's speech; Angelou takes its existential questions and broadens them, to apply to all black people. Juxtaposed with the "Negro National Anthem," Maya seems to realize that she is black, and that those ancient works of literature don't address her situation like those that specifically address the black situation in America. Angelou makes embracing this song synonymous with embracing her skin color; suddenly, she is proud of who she is, and quits her many years spent trying to deny it.
Maya has two very bad cavities, from eating too many sweets. There aren't any black dentists in Stamps, so Momma decides to take her to a white dentist in town, since he owes Momma a favor. Maya is in a lot of pain, so Momma has to drag her to the dentist right away. They get to Dr. Lincoln's, and wait on the back porch for an hour. Momma asks for Maya to be treated, but the dentist insists that he doesn't treat negro patients. Momma insists, since she had lended him money to keep his place during the Depression; he says since the money is all paid back, he doesn't owe her anything anymore.
Momma tells Maya to wait outside, while she goes in to talk to Dr. Lincoln; Maya describes a fantasy scene, in which Momma gets revenge against Dr. Lincoln and makes him apologize for his insults to her. Momma does nothing of the sort, and resolves to take Maya to the black doctor many miles away in Texarkana. Maya goes and has her two teeth removed, and comes back to Stamps and tells her brother about the "encounter" between Momma and Dr. Lincoln. As it turns out, Momma was just able to extract from him interest on the loan she gave him, and wasn't able to rebuke him for his rudeness after all.
Angelou's descriptions of the white part of town make it seem like a different country from the one she and her family live in. The images of the stones being smaller and gravel smoother are reminders of how different things are in white Stamps, and how unfamiliar black people are with it. This reinforces the extent of segregation, and again casts white people as alien beings living in a different world.
Dr. Lincoln's statement that he would "rather stick [his] hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's," is the most blatant example of racism so far in the book. But, again, Momma Henderson cannot ignore the racial codes of behavior that she has learned, and cannot stand up to Dr. Lincoln. Maya, although young, is already beginning to feel a lot of anger toward racism, and she is also angry that Momma is unable to stand up to white people when they are completely out of line. Momma seems to embody some paradoxical traits, as she is usually bold and strong, but when confronted with racism, becomes weak and quiet.
Maya's fantasy about Momma standing up to Dr. Lincoln seems to emulate the books and comic books that Maya reads. Momma becomes a powerful hero in this scene, with the power to rebuke and correct beyond her real station; Angelou's descriptions have Dr.Lincoln in a humbled position, as Momma becomes more and more authoritative. Momma also has "eloquent command of English" and the power to kill people who are rude to her in this scene; Maya projects the traits she wants Momma to have onto the character in this fantasy, expressing her frustrations with Momma's inability to stand up for herself, even though she is a strong person.
Although Maya loves her Momma, she regards Momma with a certain ambivalence at times. It hurts Maya deeply to see Momma resign herself to white people's insults; Maya wants Momma to throw away her ideas of racial subservience, and react to those people like the equal, or even superior figure, that she is.
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