“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is the first in a seven-volume series of autobiographies by the American author and poet, Maya Angelou in 1969. Angelou began the book when she was challenged by her friend, fellow author James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis to write an autobiography that would also function as a piece of literature. The result was a success, and the book was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, remaining on the New York Times Bestseller list for two years.
The central character, a young Maya Angelou herself, takes readers through her early childhood. At the age of three, her parents divorced, and she and her brother were sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Angelou writes about growing up before the Civil Rights movement in the racist southern US, going through puberty as a black woman and the rape that she suffered from her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight.
In the end, she accidentally gets pregnant as a teenager and lives happily with her newborn son. The book has been praised for its unflinching look at racism and sexism in the deep south and is still used in school curricula the world over to this day.
In the untitled prologue, a young black girl named Maya stands in front of a church congregation, reciting a poem. Maya is paralyzed by stage fright and unable to finish the poem. She notes her uncomfortable taffeta dress, which she thinks was probably a hand-me-down from an unknown white woman. She wishes that she could wake up from her “black ugly dream” and be a white woman. Maya runs out of the church in humiliation, crying and laughing at the same time. In the first chapter, the story begins when Maya is three years old and her parents divorce. She and her brother, Bailey are sent to the town of Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie and her son, Willie.
The children soon begin to call their grandmother, Momma. Momma runs the only store in the black part of town that sells food to the black cotton workers every morning before their trying day begins, and as a result, she is one of the more respected members of the community. From a young age, Maya views the overworked laborers dragging themselves home after a grueling day and resents the image of the happy, cotton picking African American that she had been lead to believe was true.
Willie, who is handicapped from an accident as a child, is both pitied and resented by the town for his position. Maya notices that he tends to hide his handicap from the people visiting the store and sympathizes with him. Maya begins reading and falls instantly in love with Shakespeare’s plays, although she feels guilty for enjoying the writing of a white man. As she grows, Maya begins hearing from others that she is ugly because, in addition to being large for her age, she has kinky hair and very dark skin.
Bailey defends her whenever she is picked on by other children and Maya considers her brother the most important person in her life. Maya also begins to fully realize the gulf between the white and black people of Stamps as she grows. She sees the way the whites of the community treat her neighbors, such as when the whites hear that a white woman in town has been having an affair with a black man and Momma worries that they will come after Willie as a scapegoat for the sake of violence. She hides him in the vegetable barrels in the store for a whole day until the controversy dies down. Maya also witnesses the disrespect that the poor white children of the town show Momma by using her real name and teasing her from the front of the store. She watches as Momma deals with the children by ignoring them and humming a gospel tune to herself.
Even though Momma did not raise a hand, Maya realizes that she won some type of battling by ignoring the children. Momma takes the opinion that it is not safe for blacks to speak of whites even in their absence. Often she refers to the whites as “they” instead of calling out anyone directly to save herself being overheard. Maya says that she feels Momma considered herself a realist and not a coward. Once, a black man in the town hides out in Momma’s store to escape the police. He is eventually apprehended after leaving, but in court, he requests a statement from “Mrs. Henderson” and the judge is surprised that the respectful title of “Mrs.” is used to refer to a black woman. This is an indicator of Momma’s place in the community.
Maya and Bailey receive gifts from their mother on Christmas and wonder at her ability to live happily without them. They cry, as they had half convinced themselves that their mother was dead. Momma scolds them for being ungrateful, but Maya and Bailey later destroy the doll that their mother sent. The children’s father, Big Bailey, comes to visit them a year later, unexpectedly. His manner and tall stature dazzle Maya. He tells the children that he is going to drive them to St. Louis to visit their mother and Momma reluctantly agrees.
Maya has no real memories of her father, but Bailey gets along easily with him. When they see their mother, Vivian again they are also impressed. Neither of them remembers the woman well and Vivian’s beauty astounds them. Bailey also gets along with her and Maya assumes that it is because they look more alike. Big Bailey leaves the children with Vivian and Maya is ambivalent about the situation as she does not remember either of them and she has no preference between them. Vivian’s mother, Grandmother Baxter entertains many of the underground prohibition opponents and liquor runners and Maya and Bailey meet many of these men during this time. As Grandmother Baxter has influence in the town, Vivian’s brothers hold city jobs that are not usually allowed to black men. Maya’s uncles are impressive to her as well.
When Bailey was a toddler, he began calling Maya, whose birth name was Marguerite, “Mya Sister” and this is how she developed her nickname. Maya’s uncles tell her this as well as other stories while Maya and Bailey stay with their mother. Vivian begins dating an older man named Mr. Freeman whom Maya is uncomfortable around. One morning, Mr. Freeman sexually molests Maya and threatens to kill Bailey if she tells anyone. Maya is confused by the situation and begins reading to lose herself in the books.
As the heroes in all of her favorite stories are male, she wishes that she were male. Mr. Freeman continues sexually molesting Maya and rapes her one night when Vivian is working late. Afterward, Freeman sends Maya to the library, but she returns home early because of the intense pain between her legs. She hides her bloodied underwear under her mattress and when Vivian returns, she finds the underwear and takes Maya to the hospital. After the rape is brought to light, Bailey urges Maya to tell the adults who hurt her, assuring her that he would not let the man kill him.
Maya admits that it was Mr. Freeman and the man is arrested. Maya’s nurses tell her that she has experienced the worst that life has to offer and she begins to think of herself as a grown woman. After Maya testifies in court but leaves out the previous sexual molestations because of her confusion about what really happened. Mr. Freeman is sent to prison for one year. He is released for a short time after the trial and that same night a policeman comes to Grandmother Baxter’s house to tell her that Freeman has been beaten to death. Maya overhears and they quickly drop the subject, talking about other things before the policeman leaves. Maya’s family never speak of the incident but she convinces herself that Mr. Freeman was killed because she lied about what she did not realize were molestations in court.
Maya thinks that is evil and that she sold her soul to the devil. She resolves to maintain a vow of silence for everyone but Bailey. In the beginning, Maya’s family accepts this silence as emotional fallout from the rape. But after it goes on for a while, they begin to get offended and angry with her. Maya and Bailey are sent back to Stamps and Maya is not sure if it was because her mother became too irritated with her for not speaking. Maya is happy to return to Stamps. A woman that Maya considers an “aristocrat of Black Stamps” named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, decides that she is going to take Maya under her wing and bring her out of her silence. She gives Maya some books and asks her to read them aloud. Maya is delighted by the task and by Bertha’s kindness and reads aloud for a while. Brought out of her silence, Maya begins talking again.
At the age of ten, she takes a job in the home of a white woman named Viola Cullinan. Maya becomes offended when Mrs. Cullinan starts calling her “Mary” because she feels that “Margaret” is too long to say. Since her real name is actually “Marguerite”, Maya becomes upset and decides that she needs to get fired as she knows Momma will not let her quit. On the advice of Bailey, she breaks some of Mrs. Cullinan’s expensive china and makes it look like an accident. Mrs. Cullinan becomes enraged and calls Maya a racist slur. Upon hearing Mrs. Cullinan’s screams, her friends ask if “Mary” did something wrong and she yells back “Her name is Margaret!” One evening, Bailey returns home late and endures punishment from Momma without explanation. He later confesses to Maya that he saw a movie with an actress that looked a lot like Vivian and he stayed late to watch it again. Maya goes to see the movie with him again and on the way home, Bailey scares her by suddenly running across the railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train. Maya wonders if he would ever hop on one of the trains and leave town.
A year later, Bailey does jump on a train but he only gets to Baton Rouge before returning two weeks later. Maya attends the annual church revival meeting with her family and on the way home, they pass a noisy party that makes them remember that there is still sin in the black community. But Maya wonders if the people at the party are simply trying to escape their rough lives the same as the people in the church. One day, a crowd of people gather in the store to listen to a radio broadcast of a heavyweight match between a white man and the black boxer, Joe Louis. Maya says that the tension is high, as the lose of Louis would seem to justify to the whites all of the racist things that they do. However, Louis wins and everyone in the store celebrates. Maya says that the win made her think that blacks were the most powerful people in the world.
Maya begins making friends in school and becomes best friends with a girl named Louise Kendricks. A boy from another grade, Tommy Valdon, sends Maya a valentine and Maya has to ask Louise what that means. Louise tells her that it means to love and Maya tears up the valentine while saying “Not ever again”. A few weeks later, Maya relents and tries to flirt with Tommy but by this time he is already interested in someone else. Bailey begins dating girls in the town and seeing a girl named Joyce whom he steals things from the store for. Joyce later runs away with another man and Bailey is heartbroken.
Maya is excited to graduate from the eighth grade but becomes angry when the white speaker at the graduation, Mr. Edward Donleavy touts the intelligence of the children from the white school and only notes that the children of the black school have become athletes. She feels that he is insinuating that black people are only capable of greatness in sports and the other people in the auditorium seem to feel the same way as the mood changes from celebratory to ashamed and tense. However, the valedictorian of the school dispels the atmosphere and gets everyone in the room to sing what had become popularly known as the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. After she develops a toothache, Momma takes Maya to the only dentist in town. The dentist, Dr. Lincoln usually only sees whites but Momma once loaned him money and she feels that he owes her a favor. However, Dr. Lincoln reminds Momma that he has already paid her back and states that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than a black mouth.
Momma tells Maya to wait outside and Maya imagines that she is going after Lincoln, but in reality, she merely reminds him that he still owes her interest on the loan and he pays her an additional ten dollars. Momma takes Maya to the nearest black dentist, twenty-five miles away. Later on, Momma tells Willie that she knows that she sinned in making Lincoln pay retroactive interest but that she doesn’t regret it. One day, Bailey returns home pale and shaken. He tells the family that he saw a black man dead in a ditch and a white man laughing at the body.
The white man threatened Bailey as well and he wonders what black people did to white people to make them so angry. Sensing unrest in the town, Momma quickly makes plans to take Bailey and Maya to live with their mother in Los Angeles. Maya and Bailey’s relationship changes with their mother as they begin to see her as more of a person and less of an untouchable person with dazzling beauty. Vivian supports the family by running gambling and poker games. Maya is impressed by Vivian’s fairness even though the woman sometimes explodes in bouts of rage and depression. Vivian once shot a gambling partner and the two actually remained friends afterward. A short time after the United States enters World War II, Vivian remarries to a businessman that Maya calls Daddy Clidell and the family moves to San Francisco.
After the Japanese in San Francisco are put into internment camps, Maya notices that no one ever speaks about the injustice. However, the black workers begin replacing the Japanese workers in the town and Maya wonders if that is all that matters to them. Maya is put into a white school after being placed in a high grade because of her intelligence. The students are harsh to her but she receives a scholarship to a drama school at the age of fourteen. Daddy Clidell becomes a father figure to Maya and he introduces her to his business and his con man friends who make their money by swindling racist whites.
Maya can’t see the men as criminals. She realizes that ethics depend upon necessity. Big Bailey offers to let Maya live with him for the summer and meet his new fiancee, Dolores. While staying with him, Big Bailey brings Maya over the border of Mexico ostensibly to buy groceries. She notices that he is at ease and seems less pompous in the country and that he seems to know a lot of people. However, after he leaves her alone for a while, he comes back stumbling drunk and Maya is forced to drive back home despite never having driven a car before. Back at the house, Dolores and Big Bailey fight about Maya as Dolores feels that she has come between them.
After Big Bailey storms off, Maya gently tells Dolores that she didn’t mean to come between them. Dolores is still angry and insults Maya, telling her that her mother is a whore. Maya slaps Dolores and Dolores stabs her with a pair of scissors. Big Bailey hears screaming and returns, taking Maya to a friends house to be bandaged up. He then takes her to another friend’s house where she stays the night.
The next morning, he gives her some money and promises to come back later. Maya decides to leave on her own but is not sure where to go. She doesn’t think that she can return to her mother since she would have to explain why she left and it might cause a fight between her parents. She leaves Big Bailey’s friend’s house and spends the night in a junkyard. When she wakes, she discovers that she has unwittingly spent the night in the squatting area of a group of homeless black, white and Mexican teenagers. They tell her that she can stay as long as she follows the rules of their group. Maya stays for a month and finds that she develops a better understanding of diversity and tolerance while staying with the teenagers.
At the end of the month, she calls Vivian and asks for plane fare home and the group wishes her well. Back home, Bailey and Vivian have grown apart after Bailey began dating a white prostitute. Bailey moves out and Maya is devastated by this. He assures her that he is adult and the time has come for him to move out anyway. Maya takes a semester off from school and begins trying to get a job as a streetcar conductor despite their reluctance to hire blacks. She eventually succeeds and becomes the first black person to work on the San Francisco streetcars. Maya notes that American black women have to face not only the commonplace snares of puberty but the racism and sexism of society and that it is not surprise that the women that endure this possess strong characters. Maya reads a classic work of lesbian fiction called “The Well of Loneliness” and, having never heard of the concept before, becomes worried that she is a lesbian because of her more masculine size and small breasts. She decides to try dating a boy to settle the matter. She has trouble finding one and eventually has sex with one of the boys on her street, still remaining confused afterward. Three weeks later she discovers that she is pregnant.
Maya writes to Bailey for advice about the pregnancy and he warns her to keep it secret. He fears that their mother would force her to quit school as she is against abortions. After Maya graduates, she confesses to her mother that she is eight months pregnant. Vivian and Daddy Clidell accept this calmly and without scolding her. Maya soon gives birth to a son and spends the first few weeks terrified of touching her delicate baby. Vivian finally forces her to sleep in the bed with her baby and Maya realizes that she won’t crush him. Vivian tells Maya that if her heart is in the right place, she does not have to worry about doing the right thing.
Maya Angelou – Maya is, of course, the main character and narrator of the memoir. Starting out as a small children reeling from the divorce of her parents, Maya is sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas. Growing up, Maya endures not only the trials of youth but the racism and sexism inherent in being a black woman in America. Maya is an exceptionally bright child from the beginning, reading from an early age and being put in higher grades at school. Her curiosity and ability to reason is already leagues ahead of her peers at an early age. Maya is surrounded by family that, while they may not always make the best decisions, love and support her as much as they can. In particular, her grandmother, Momma whom she cites as the biggest parental influence in her young life. At a young age, Maya is raped and sexually molested by a boyfriend of her mother’s named Mr. Freeman. As is common with rape victims, she blames herself for the assault and spends a long time not speaking to anyone but her brother because she feels that she only brings evil when she speaks. Maya’s emotional journey over the book reflects her physical growth into a woman. Though she feels as though she were a woman after the nurses tell her in the hospital that she has experienced the worst of life, she later realizes that it is only after she suddenly becomes a mother that she truly grows up. She ends the book as a new mother, secure and happy in her status.
Annie Henderson (Momma) – Maya’s paternal grandmother. Momma is the biggest influence in Maya and Bailey’s young lives. She is also one of the most respected black citizens of her town in Arkansas because she owns a store and feeds the weary cotton workers. Her store serves as a gathering place for the black people of the community.Momma is a strict Christian and raises Maya and Bailey in accordance with her values, regularly punishing them if she feels that they have offended God. However, despite these punishments, Momma is a good grandmother and she cares for the children immensely, seeing to their well being better than anyone in their young lives. Momma takes an interesting approach to facing the angry white people in her community. She ignores them, singing gospel songs when the white children mock her, and refuses to speak badly of them even when she is alone with her family. Momma seems to think that avoiding the anger of the whites is, in it’s own way standing up to them and encourages the children to do the same.
Bailey Johnson, Jr. – Maya’s older brother. Bailey is an intelligent, sensitive child growing up. Unlike Maya, he is very social and good at making friends wherever he goes. However, despite the influx of friends, he never forgets or neglects his friendship with his sister and remains a source of advice and love for her even after he moves away. Bailey seeks the love of their mother, Vivian more so than Maya and much of his story revolves around his love for his mother. He is so reluctant to be away from her that he stays out late, enduring a punishment from Momma just so he can watch an actress that looks like her in a movie. In the end, Bailey and Vivian grow apart when Bailey starts imitating the gangsters that she works with in order to get her attention and she rebukes him.
Maya Angelou Biography
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou received the nickname Maya from her brother when she was a toddler. When she was only three years old, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas. As a child, Maya developed a love of reading that stayed with her all of her life and inspired her to write. She was an exceptional student. At the age of age of fourteen, Maya and her brother began living with their mother again in California.
During the second world war, while she was still in high school, Maya began working as the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco. She became pregnant before graduating high school and gave birth to her son, Clyde at the age of seventeen. In 1951, Maya married an electrician and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, despite the fact that he was a white man and interracial marriages were frowned upon at the time.
During the 1950’s, Maya danced and sang professionally in New York City and San Francisco, later touring Europe with a dance troupe. She changed her stage name to Maya Angelou using her nickname and married name although she and her husband divorced in 1954. In 1957, she recorded her first music album, “Miss Calypso” and appeared in an off-Broadway play.
In 1959, Maya moved to New York to concentrate on her writing. She joined the famous Harlem Writer’s Guild and was published as a poet for the first time. It was also during this time that Maya began activist campaigns against apartheid.
In the early 1960’s, she met a South African freedom fighter named Vusumzi Make and moved, with her son to Cairo where she began working as an editor for an English-language newspaper. Maya was heavily involved in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and associated with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others. She became close friends with noted Civil Rights and Gay activist James Baldwin who encouraged her to write an autobiography about her life. What resulted was the first in a seven-part series titled, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which was published in 1969.
Throughout the 1970’s, Maya continued to write and appeared in the television mini-series “Roots”. She was given many awards, including over thirty honorary degrees from various colleges around the world. Maya worked as a songwriter and composing movie scores. She wrote in almost every format, including articles, short stories, poetry, television scripts, and plays.
In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award. In the 1980’s, after divorcing for the second time, she became a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In the 1990s, she won a Grammy Award for a recording of a poem that she wrote and in 1996, she directed a feature film called “Down in the Delta”. Her sixth autobiography, “A Song Flung Up To Heaven” was completed almost thirty years after starting the autobiography project in 2002.
In 2008, though she initially supported Senator Hilary Clinton for president, Maya began supported then-Senator Barack Obama in his run up to the presidency. Over the course of the next few years, Maya concentrated on writing and giving lectures.
In 2013, she finally completed her autobiography project with the release of ‘Mom and Me and Mom’ a memoir about her relationship with her mother. Maya died on May 28th, 2014 at the age of 86 and was grieved by fans and fellow writers the world over.