Then they would face another day of trying to earn enough for the whole year with the heavy knowledge that they were going to end the season as they started it. Without the money or credit necessary to sustain a family for three months.Maya, p. 17
The “they” in this quote refers to the Black cotton pickers that shop in the Store. Like many Black descendants of former slaves, the Stamps’ cotton pickers are trapped in a vicious debt cycle. They don’t own the land they work on, but rather work it for white landowners. The landowners provide the land, housing, tools, and seed as a loan. By the end of the picking season, the workers must have picked enough cotton to pay back the landowners, pay off their credit at the Store, and have enough remaining funds to see their family through the winter. This is already a tall order, and is further complicated because the cotton workers receive only half (maybe less) of the profits accrued from picking. Thus the workers “end the season as they started it,” poor and in debt.
He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame.Maya, p. 23
Uncle Willie is the focus of this quote. As a Black crippled man, he has two identity markers that negatively impact his place in society. As Maya says earlier in the book, being an able-bodied Black man is already a struggle. Uncle Willie’s disability adds a new dimension to his struggles. In this quote, Maya speculates that perhaps Uncle Willie grew tired of being “the cripple” in his community, and so when the Store has customers from out of town, he pretends he doesn’t have a disability.
It is significant that Maya compares Uncle Willie’s life to that of a prisoner or a guilty person. It suggests that Uncle Willie feels trapped in his body and ashamed of his situation. It also suggests that perhaps society treats him the same way they treat criminals—with scorn, fear, and righteous anger.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.Maya, p. 42
Segregation in Stamps is so absolute that many Black children don’t know what white people look like. Hence, Maya says she once believed that white people were not real.
I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country.Maya, p. 116
When Maya and Bailey first arrive in St. Louis, the city’s modern technology and diversity of food options blow them away. For kids that have spent most of their lives in rural Arkansas, St. Louis’ flushing toilets, packaged foods, and multitude of cars, trains, and buses seem like artifacts from a “foreign country.”
Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.Mrs. Bertha Flowers, p. 162
This quote showcases Mrs. Flowers’ philosophical mind and her excellent ability to read people. Thus far, Maya’s family has tried to make her speak by cajoling her, punishing her, and ignoring her, all with no success. Mrs. Flowers figures out that in order to get Maya to speak again, she must make Maya desire to speak again. She knows Maya has a love of literature, and tells the girl that books take on new and deeper meaning when read aloud. Maya begins the road to recovering her voice because she wants to tap into these deeper meanings in the literature she reads.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.Maya, p. 167
Maya has grappled with insecurity and self-repudiation her entire youth. Being viewed and liked because she was Bailey’s sister or Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild has not helped Maya deal with these feelings, but rather made them worse. Thus, when Mrs. Flowers seeks out Maya (and only Maya) and befriends her, Maya feels for the first time that she is liked and respected for being her. This is an important step in Maya’s development.
Her name’s Margaret, goddamn it, her name’s Margaret.Mrs. Cullinan, p. 183
This quote is important because it shows that Mrs. Cullinan didn’t just “forget” Maya’s real name. Rather, she was using her own name for Maya to show her supremacy and power over the young girl. After Maya shatters Mrs. Cullinan’s prized family heirloom, Mrs. Cullinan relinquishes the illusion of control she thought she had over Maya. Mrs. Cullinan’s use of "Margaret" and not "Mary" symbolizes the shift in power from Mrs. Cullinan to Maya.
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life.Maya, p. 301
These are heartfelt and bitter words torn from Maya’s soul during her school graduation. This sentence sums up the lives of Black Southerners during the early to mid-1900s. White supremacy, expressed in Jim Crow laws, made Black people second-class citizens with a limited amount of opportunities. Maya feels this low glass ceiling acutely during Mr. Donleavy’s speech, when he reminds the Black students of Stamps that they are expected to be athletes or hired help. Because of Donleavy’s speech, Maya feels that she has no control over her life choices and is incapable of achieving her dreams.
The colored men backed off and I did too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?Bailey, p. 328
Bailey asks a question that has no clear answer in this quote. After witnessing and experiencing firsthand white brutality against Black people, he wonders what Black people could have done to warrant such hatred. Uncle Willie is somewhat at a loss, and simply tells Bailey that white people aren’t hateful, but scared. This quote reveals the senselessness and unexplainable aspect of racism, and also marks the end of Bailey’s innocence.
We are the victims of the world’s most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It’s all right if we do a little robbing now.Maya, p. 373
In this quote Maya discusses the actions of Black con artists who specifically target white con artists for revenge. These white con artists are typically guilty of “fleecing” vulnerable Black people, and so the Black con artists feel justified. Maya takes it a step further, and argues that because Black Americans lost so much during slavery, and continue to lose in modern America, some reparations are in order. She views the actions of the Black con artists as just desserts, as the righting of wrongs, and as a balancing act.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been called an autobiography by some and a novel by others. Organized episodically, it moves chronologically from the early 1930’s through the early 1940’s. It begins when Marguerite and Bailey are three and four and ends just after V-Day and Marguerite’s high school graduation. In describing what happens to the main character, Marguerite Johnson, it shows what happens in the black communities of Stamps, Arkansas; St. Louis; and parts of wartime California.
Autobiographical elements include what happens to Marguerite and her family and how she feels, as an adult, about the people and events. The novelistic elements include her graphic and detailed reconstruction of long-past events and conversations. The resulting work creates a character in Marguerite who is intelligent, curious, perceptive, and fascinated by all kinds of things. What she endures, the events and people who touch her life, are blended into a mélange of appealing stories.
Nearly every episode seems to have at least one of two aims—to give a picture of what it was like to be an African American during the Great Depression and World War II, and to show how one very determined black girl faced obstacles, overcame them, and triumphed. The dangers of being black in the days before the civil rights struggle are illustrated in the episode in which crippled Uncle Willie must hide all night in a compartment of the store’s potato bin because the Ku Klux Klan is on the rampage. Another episode shows Marguerite working as a maid in a white household and being called “Mary” because the white mistress of the house decides “Marguerite” is too much name for her to have to say. When the entire black community of Stamps gathers around the store’s radio to hear the Joe Louis-Primo Carnera fight, Maya Angelou re-creates the pride blacks felt in their hero. When it seems that Louis might lose, she writes, “my race groaned. It was our people falling. . . . A Black boy whipped and maimed . . . hounds on the trail of a man . . . a white woman slapping her maid. . . . We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.” Then when Louis knocks out his white opponent and is announced “still heavyweight champion of the world,” the black people of Stamps, clearly representative of black people all over America, celebrate. Another time, when Marguerite has a bad toothache, her grandmother takes her to the only dentist in Stamps, a white man to whom Momma lent money during the Depression. He refuses to help, saying, “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth” than in the mouth of any black person. Angelou’s reaction is to fantasize that her grandmother gets revenge by humiliating the dentist and putting him out of business. These and other episodes depict many aspects of the black experience, enhancing what may be conveyed blandly in history books.
Angelou’s affinity for poetry is evident in her writing style, full of poetic imagery and unusual phraseology. She mixes African American sayings and idioms to achieve her own inimitable mode of expression. The book begins with the African American rhyme, “What you looking at me for?/ I didn’t come to stay./ I just came to tell you,/ it’s Easter Day.” She describes “the kissing sounds of the tires” on her father’s car as they drive to St. Louis. A summer afternoon is recalled as “sweetmilk fresh in [her] memory.” Vomiting is described as “My lunch was in my mouth a second time.”
Some figures of speech are not successful. They sometimes require rereading to grasp the intent. Angelou, for example, describes a set of false teeth as “looking empty—and at the same time appearing to contain all the emptiness in the world.” However, for the most part, the language of the narration and of the dialogue is fresh, vivid, and characteristic of twentieth century African American expression.
Angelou’s kind of black family is not often the subject of literature. Her grandparents on both sides are not only hard-working but successful. Hard work has often been shown as the lot of black people, particularly before the 1960’s. Almost always, the result of their labor was minimal subsistence. The Johnsons and the Baxters not only made a good living, they were also in a position to help others. They are seen as realizing to a great extent the American Dream, and Angelou shows herself and her brother Bailey as growing up with the American Dream of being educated and successful.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings does for the southern rural black experience what James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) does for the northern urban black experience. Its historical commentary is instructive about the Depression in the south. The portrayal of a young woman’s search for identity is unforgettable.