I know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Background

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri on 4 April, 1928. She was named Marguerite but her brother Bailey Johnson who could not pronounce it, began calling her Maya. Eventually, she accepted that as her name. Maya had a very disturbed childhood. When she was just three, her parents divorced and she and her brother were sent to live in the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas with her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Later, they went back to live with their mother, Vivian Baxter.

Maya Angelou’s career as a civil rights activist began when she was around fifteen. She battled racism to become the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Later she became a part of the civil rights movement launched by Martin Luther King. Her leadership qualities and vision were recognized by several Presidents and she became a part of various committees. She was requested to deliver a special poem at Bill Clinton’s Presidential inauguration. She was the second poet to receive this honour in America.

Maya Angelou has been active in theatre and has travelled extensively all over the world. Angelou’s intense and disturbed childhood has been the subject of many of her stories. Encouraged by friends and publishers, Maya Angelou wrote five autobiographies covering different periods of her life. Of these, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ received a lot of critical acclaim. No study of African American literature is complete without a reading of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. At one time it was removed from reading lists due to its frank depictions of the author’s sexuality and the experience of being raped as a child. ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was published at a time when women’s importance as mainstream thinkers and activists had begun to be proclaimed and recognized. The book conveys not only racial discrimination faced by a black girl in the Deep South but gender discrimination too. Apart from these issues, the book deals with troubled relationships between parents and children, child abuse and the search for self identity.

Summary

Maya Angelo describes her life as an insecure and precocious black girl in the segregated southern part of America of the 1930s in her autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Maya’s troubled childhood begins when she and her four year old brother Bailey are put into a train and sent to live with their paternal grandmother when their parents divorce. The grandmother whom they call Momma becomes the central moral figure in their lives for many years. Momma is a disciplinarian who runs the only store in the black part of the town.

Maya and Bailey are not old enough to understand why they have been rejected and abandoned by their parents. For Maya, her angst is compounded by the belief that she is ugly and not worth anything. She feels that she is inferior to the other black children. Whenever she is ridiculed for not finishing or completing a poem in church, it is Bailey, her confident and smart brother, who helps her out. Growing up in Stamps, Maya comes face to face with deep seated racial prejudices which erupts into violence. She does not go out as she terrified of the lynching white mobs that kill with no provocation. Even so, there is some regularity in her life which is snatched away when her father suddenly appears on the scene and takes both children away and dumps them on their mother. Maya who has no memory of her mother Vivian, finds her alluring but wild. Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s live-in boy friend, Mr. Freeman, who rapes her later on. Though she keeps it a secret initially, her family finds out and Mr. Freeman is sent to prison. When he is released, he is murdered, probably by some of Vivian’s associates. Maya feels personally responsible for his murder and stops speaking to everyone except her brother Bailey. For some time the rest of the family including her mother Vivian tolerate this but soon they run out of patience and send the children back to Momma in Stamps.

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Maya is happy to be back there but Bailey prefers his mother’s world of danger and glamour. Momma introduces Maya to Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a gentle, cultured woman who gets Maya talking again. As she grows older, Maya begins to realize the strengths and weaknesses of her community. Maya endures racial discrimination almost every day of her life. At ten, Maya begins working for a white woman who keeps calling her Mary since it came more naturally to her. Denied her identity, Maya retaliates by smashing the woman’s fine china. At her eighth grade graduation, a white speaker trashes the hopes of the students and their parents by saying that blacks can only aspire to be athletes or servants. Then there is the dentist who says that he’d rather put his hands in a dog’s mouth than in a black person’s mouth. Things come to a head when Bailey is witness to a black man’s lynching. Momma says the South is not safe for the children and packs them off to their mother who by now lives in California.

By the time Maya is thirteen, she has moved house thrice within California. When Vivian marries the kind and fatherly Daddy Clidell, the whole family moves to San Francisco, a city which appeals to Maya. A summer spent with her biological father ends with Maya running away from home as she cannot get along with her father’s current girl friend. A month spent in the company of a group of homeless teenagers helps her to find her spirit and identity. When she comes back to San Francisco, she is a changed person. During the war, she challenges the racist hiring policies in San Francisco successfully and becomes the first black streetcar conductor at the age of fifteen. Sexuality is still a confusing issue for her and to prove a point she becomes pregnant but does not reveal her pregnancy for eight months till she graduates from high school. The book ends with Maya looking forward to the birth of her child, confident that she will be a good mother.

Plot

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is an autobiography by Maya Angelou. It describes the coming of age of a black girl who lives in the southern parts of America. Three year old Maya and her four year old brother Bailey are sent to their paternal grandmother at Stamps, Arkansas as their parents get divorced. The children try to come to grips with the rejection and abandonment. In Momma, their grandmother, the children find the moral authority which lends stability to their world. Momma is an institution. She runs the only store in the segregated part of the town.

When Maya is eight, her father makes a rare appearance and takes the children away and deposits them with their mother, Vivian. Maya who has forgotten her mother finds her personality magnetic and beautiful. Bailey falls under her spell for life. Vivian has a string of men in her life with the current live-in boy friend being Mr. Freeman. When she is just eight, Maya is sexually abused and raped by Mr. Freeman. Though she keeps it a secret initially, the family finds out and Freeman is jailed. On his release Freeman is gruesomely murdered, by some of Vivian’s associates.

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Maya feels that she is responsible for his death in some way and stops speaking to everyone but her brother. Initially the family is supportive of Maya but soon they lose patience and send her and Bailey back to Momma. Maya is happy to be back in Momma’s store but Bailey misses his mother’s glamorous world spiced with danger. Momma introduces Maya to Mrs. Bertha Flowers who gets her talking again. Mrs. Flowers is educated and gentle; just the kind of person Maya needs. Maya observes her community and understands its weaknesses and strengths. Virtually every day, she is exposed to racial taunts and discrimination and she rebels against it. When she is ten, she begins working for a white woman who calls her Mary since its more convenient for her. Denied her identity, Maya retaliates by breaking the woman’s fine china. At her eighth grade graduation ceremony, the white speaker tells the gathering of young and eager minds that they can only hope to be athletes or servants. When Momma takes her to the dentist with a painful tooth, the dentist sends them away saying that he would rather put his hands in the mouth of a dog than in a black person’s mouth.

Every day, there are reports of hate crimes like lynching and murder. Bailey once witnesses the killing of a black man and Momma decides that the South is no place for the children and sends them back to their mother who is now in California. When Vivian marries Daddy Clidell who is a positive father figure, they move to San Francisco, a city that Maya grows to love. A summer with her biological father in Los Angeles is disastrous as the father’s girl friend injures her during a fight. Maya runs away and spends a month living with a group of homeless teenagers. This helps her become independent and enables her to find some sort of identity. She fights racial employment policies and manages to become the first African American conductor in a streetcar in San Francisco at the age of fifteen. She becomes pregnant when she is only sixteen, managing to keep it a secret from her family for eight months. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ ends with a confident Maya looking forward to raise her child as a devoted mother.

Characters

Maya

In ‘I Know Why The caged Bird Sings’, Maya, the precocious young girl suffers not from the recognized traumas of being black and a female in America but also the trauma of rejection by her parents. At the age of three, she and her brother are sent to live with her paternal grandmother as their parents divorce each other. Though Maya is smart and intelligent she considers herself to be ugly and felts that people judged her unfairly due to her unattractive appearance. For some time she imagines that she is a blonde blue-eyed girl, trapped in a black body, which will soon be set free. The difficulties of growing up as a black girl in the segregated south are tough enough but Maya also has to deal with familial displacements and rape when she is just eight.

Maya craves for physical affection which she is denied. Her grandmother, Momma provides stability and a moral framework but there is no demonstrable love anywhere for Maya. She takes Mr. Freeman’s attentions to be a father’s love but it is not and he rapes her. Maya feels morally responsible for Mr. Freeman’s death when he gets out of prison. By the time she is ten, Maya has faced racial barbs and taunts aplenty. Mrs. Cullinan, her employer calls her Mary instead of Maya, denying her real identity, simply because the white woman finds it more convenient. The white dentist, to whom Momma takes Maya, refuses to examine her, saying that he would rather care for a dog than treat a black person.

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As Maya grows up, she matures into a person who is ready to fight for recognition and justice. At fifteen she fights against an unfair racial recruitment policy which denied her employment. She becomes the first black person to be appointed as a streetcar conductor. For Maya, her Momma and her brother Bailey are sources of unwavering love and encouragement. Later Vivian and Daddy Clidell provide her with the encouragement to overcome all her difficulties in life and realize her full potential. She learns to face her failings with frankness and honor and learns to cope with the guilt of lying in court during Mr. Freeman’s trial. She also learns the importance of looking beyond her black identity. When the book ends, though Maya is more confident, she is still sensitive about her looks and her sexuality. But she learns to trust her instincts and her abilities and looks forward to caring for her new born son.

Bailey Johnson Jr.

Bailey is a year older than Maya, but she depends on him to help her get through her childhood. Rejected and displaced at a young age, they support each other and bring some semblance of stability and continuity to their lives. While Maya is ungainly and lacks self esteem, Bailey is charming, attractive and confident. He uses all these attributes to help Maya when she faces ridicule and criticism. Maya and Bailey share many intellectual pursuits like poetry and language. Maya and Bailey face racial taunts but the difference lies in the way they react to it. While Maya is inclined to confront it head on, Bailey ignores it and lets it wash over him harmlessly. But he is no less aware of racial discrimination. There is a difference in the way Maya and Bailey perceive their mother. Bailey is captivated by his mother’s class, her looks and style. Maya recognizes that she is beautiful but she is not under her spell unlike Bailey. It’s likely that Bailey’s adoration for his mother will hinder his future relationships with women in some way as he would tend to compare their persona to his mother’s.

Annie Henderson (Momma)

Momma is Maya and Bailey’s grandmother who raises them when they are young. She became an emotional anchor for both the children when they were rejected by their parents. Momma ran the only store in the black community for a number of years and her store eventually becomes a hub for the entire black community. The store began as a mobile lunch counter for the black cotton workers and gradually grew to its position at the heart of the black community.

Momma did not believe in showing love. Her advice to Maya is to do right and live by the laws of God. She believes in discipline and Christian values. Though she has a lot of affection for the children, she sends them away from her when she realizes that the South is no place for them, especially for Bailey. Momma chose her battles carefully. She was realistic when it came to racial matters believing discretion was the better part of valour.