I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Summary

Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Summary

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical novel by Maya Angelou. Angelou discusses the struggles of growing up African American in the 1950s. The novel has themes of overcoming adversity and trauma, both used as a general metaphor for the struggle against racism. Angelou wrote the novel as a challenge to create literature out of an autobiography, and what emerged is a classic that is still revered today.

The novel begins on a train from California to Arkansas. The protagonist, Maya, and her brother, Bailey, are being sent to live with their grandmother, known as Momma, and their uncle, Willie. Once they get to the town of Stamps, Momma becomes a strong maternal figure for Maya. She is the owner of the only store in the black section of town and is modestly wealthy. Momma and Willie emphasize the importance of education to Maya, and her love of literature begins to blossom.

Maya struggles with incidents of racism in Stamps. The white girls in town often harass her. Maya witnesses Willie being hidden from Klu Klux Klan members by Momma. Despite incidents like these, Bailey and Maya grow comfortable in Stamps with Momma as a good role model.

Suddenly, when Maya is eight years old, her father comes to town. He takes Bailey and Maya to live with their mother, Vivian, in St. Louis. Vivian is enigmatic and people enjoy being around her. She is beautiful with a mean streak, but one that people seem to respect. Vivian uses her personality to her advantage and entertains rich boyfriends. Soon after moving to St. Louis, Vivian’s paramour, Mr. Freeman, molests Maya and rapes her. Mr. Freeman is sent to court, but is only sentenced to one year and one day. When he is temporarily released before his prison sentence, he is murdered. Maya presumes he was murdered by some of her uncles and feels she is responsible for his death. She decides stop speaking. At first, her family understands her silence, but soon they are offended by it. Vivian sends Maya and Bailey back to Stamps, and Maya is unsure if Momma has decided to take over, or if Vivian can no longer stand Maya’s silence. Momma introduces Maya to Mrs. Flowers, who introduces Maya to poetry. Mrs. Flowers encourages Maya to read poetry out loud, which helps her speak again. Maya begins to feel comfortable in Stamps again.

Maya is met with more racism. An employer insists on calling Maya “Mary,” because it is easier for her to say. Even a white dentist, whom Momma lent money to, refuses to work on Maya’s teeth, saying he would rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. Maya’s community eagerly listens to the radio for Joe Louis to beat his white boxing opponent, which he does. Bailey sees a black man who was killed by white men, so Momma decides to move them out of the south to the safer California.

Momma takes them to Vivian, who now lives in Los Angeles. They then move to Oakland, California, until Vivian meets her wealthy boyfriend, Daddy Clidell. He moves them to San Francisco into a large house. World War II is beginning, and the Japanese population of San Francisco disappears from the city. Maya finds this strange, especially because no one talks about it. Maya does well in school in San Francisco and skips a grade. She is sent to an all-white school where she is one of three black students. The other students are aggressive towards her, but she has a teacher who treats her fairly. Daddy Clidell becomes a solid father figure for Maya, even though he is a con man. He mostly focuses on conning racist white men, who have taken advantage of black men in the past, so Maya believes he is justified.

Maya is invited to spend the summer with her biological father, Bailey Sr., in Los Angeles. Maya is excited, but is disheartened after meeting his girlfriend, Dolores, who is not whom she expected. Dolores is jealous of the attention Bailey Sr. gives her. The jealousy culminates in a fight, with Maya slapping Dolores for calling Vivian a whore, and Dolores stabbing Maya with scissors. When Bailey Sr. shuffles Maya between friend’s houses after this incident, Maya decides to go elsewhere. She knows not to go home, though, as Vivian would be furious over her wound and would cause further issues with Dolores and her father.

Maya stays with a group of homeless teenagers for the rest of the summer, until she asks Vivian to pay for her airfare home. Bailey Jr. is different upon Maya’s return to San Francisco. He tries to model himself after some of Vivian’s gangster associates. He hangs out with a white woman prostitute, of which Vivian disapproves. Maya is confused by this change, especially when Bailey moves out to take a job in the South Pacific, but he assures her his heart is good.

Maya decides to become a street conductor in San Francisco, even though they do not hire black people. She pushes against that racist policy and is ultimately hired as the first black street conductor in San Francisco. She thinks about how as a young black woman she not only has to fight against judgments against her adolescence, but against racism and sexism as well. Maya reads a book in school about lesbianism and wonders if she is a lesbian, which she equates to being a hermaphrodite. She notes her masculine features, but Vivian explains she is normal.

To prove herself wrong, she has intercourse with a boy in her neighborhood. It does not prove or disprove anything and is mostly awkward. She becomes pregnant from this encounter. Vivian and Daddy Clidell accept this change. Maya is nervous about becoming a mother, but once her son is born, discovers she will be a good mother because her heart is in the right place.