Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die. She later wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning"—one of her most famous works—which she recited at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009. She died on May 28, 2014.
1. Early Years
Multi-talented barely seems to cover the depth and breadth of Maya Angelou's accomplishments. She was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer and poet. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Angelou had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father's mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate around the age of 7: During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. Then, as vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou's uncles killed the boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School. Also during this time, Angelou became the first black female cable car conductor—a job she held only briefly, in San Francisco.
In 1944, a 16-year-old Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship had led to the pregnancy), thereafter working a number of jobs to support herself and her child. In 1952, the future literary icon wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name—a blend of her childhood nickname, "Maya," and a shortened version of his surname.
2. Career Beginnings
In the mid-1950s, Angelou's career as a performer began to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, later appearing in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and releasing her first album, Miss Calypso (1957). A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Angelou organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC's northern coordinator.
In 1961, Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. While the play earned strong reviews, Angelou moved on to other pursuits, spending much of the 1960s abroad; she first lived in Egypt and then in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.
After returning to the United States, Angelou was urged by friend and fellow writer James Baldwin to write about her life experiences. Her efforts resulted in the enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The poignant work also made Angelou an international star.
Since publishing Caged Bird, Angelou continued to break new ground—not just artistically, but educationally and socially. She wrote the drama Georgia, Georgia in 1972—becoming the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced—and went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.
3. Later Successes
Angelou wrote several autobiographies throughout her career, including All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), but 1969's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings continues to be regarded as her most popular autobiographical work. She also published several collections of poetry, including Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
One of Angelou's most famous works is the poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she wrote especially for and recited at President Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony in January 1993—marking the first inaugural recitation since 1961, when Robert Frost delivered his poem "The Gift Outright" at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of the poem.
In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times' paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart's history.
Seeking new creative challenges, Angelou made her directorial debut in 1998 with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard. She also wrote a number of inspirational works, from the essay collection Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1994) to her advice for young women in Letter to My Daughter (2008). Interested in health, Angelou has even published cookbooks, including Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes (2005) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).
Angelou's career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festival's 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta; and two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, for her 2005 cookbook and 2008's Letter to My Daughter.
4. Personal Life
Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend of Angelou's, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta's death in 2006.
Angelou was good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute. President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her "a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman." Angelou "had the ability to remind us that we are all God's children; that we all have something to offer," he wrote.
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
(See IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED below)
A young black girl named Maya stands in front of her church congregation on Easter, unable to finish reciting a poem. She wears an unflattering altered taffeta dress that, she notes, is probably a secondhand dress from a white woman, and she fantasizes that one day she will wake up out of her “black ugly dream” and be white and blond instead of a large, unattractive African American girl. After being humiliated in front of everyone and tripped by another child, she ends up running out of church peeing, crying, and laughing all at the same time.
Summary: Chapter 1
Prior to this incident, when Maya is three years old and her brother, Bailey, is four, their parents divorce. Their parents send the children by train with a porter from California to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and her disabled adult son, Willie. The porter abandons the children the next day in Arizona, and the two young children make the rest of the trip to Stamps with pieces of paper tacked on their bodies listing their final destination. Mrs. Henderson, whom the children soon begin to call Momma, owns and runs the only store in the black section of Stamps. The Store is the center of the community, and Momma is one of the community’s most respected residents.
During the cotton-harvesting season, Momma awakes at four in the morning to sell lunches to the crowd of black cotton laborers before they begin the day’s grueling work. In the morning, the laborers appear full of hope and energy, but by the end of the day, they barely have enough energy to drag themselves home. They always earn less than they thought they would, and they often voice suspicions about illegally weighted scales. The stereotype of happy, singing cotton pickers enrages Maya. The laborers never earn enough to pay their debts, much less enough to save a penny.
Summary: Chapter 2
Willie, who was crippled in a childhood accident, acts as the children’s disciplinarian. Willie becomes the butt of jokes in the community, in part due to his handicap, but also because he lives a relatively stable life while most able-bodied black men can barely support themselves. Maya returns home from school one day to see him, for the first time, hiding his handicap from two strangers who have stopped briefly at the Store. Maya understands and sympathizes with the tiring pity and contempt Willie must feel, and the incident makes her feel closer to him. During this time, Maya falls in love with reading, especially William Shakespeare, though she feels a bit guilty because Shakespeare was a white man.
Summary: Chapter 3
One afternoon, Mr. Steward, the white former sheriff, comes to warn Momma that the whites are on the warpath because they say a black man has “messed with” a white woman. Momma hides Willie in the potato and onion bins in case the mob comes to the store looking for a scapegoat to lynch. Luckily it does not, but Maya clearly notes Willie’s moans coming from the bins.
Summary: Chapter 4
As a child, Maya constantly hears from others that she is ugly. She has kinky hair and dark skin, and she is large for her age. Bailey, on the other hand, is a small, graceful and attractive child. Whenever somebody remarks on Maya’s ugly appearance, Bailey makes sure to avenge his sister by insulting the offending party. Maya considers Bailey the most important person in her world.
Summary: Chapter 5
Momma insists that the children observe rules and respect their elders. The only children who do not respect Momma are poor white children. It pains Maya to hear them disrespect Momma and Willie by addressing them by their first names. One day, when Maya is ten, three poor white children approach the Store. Momma sends Maya inside. The children mock Momma by mimicking her stance and gestures and Maya cries with impotent rage. Meanwhile, Momma says nothing and simply hums gospel hymns. One of the older white girls does a handstand, and her dress falls over her head revealing that she wears no underwear. Maya is furious, but when Momma enters the Store, Maya realizes that Momma has somehow fought and won a battle with the white children.
Summary: Chapter 6
Reverend Howard Thomas, the presiding church elder in the district, visits Stamps every three months. He stays with Momma on Saturday and delivers a sermon in church on Sunday. Maya and Bailey hate him because he always eats the best parts of Sunday dinner.
Summary: Chapter 7
Momma does not believe it is safe for black people to speak to whites and certainly not with insolence. She does not speak too harshly of whites even in their absence unless she generically refers to whites as “they.” Maya says that Momma would have called herself a realist rather than a coward. Once, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman took refuge in Momma’s Store. He eventually left, only to be apprehended later. In court, he testified that he had stayed with Mrs. Henderson. The judge subpoenaed Mrs. Henderson only to realize to his surprise that the accused had referred to a black woman as “Mrs.” This unusual title, usually reserved for whites, indicates Momma’s high status in her community.
Summary: Chapter 8
A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt . . .
(See IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED below)
One Christmas, Maya and Bailey’s parents send them gifts. The children go outside and cry, wondering what they did wrong to be sent away in the first place. Having convinced themselves that their mother was dead, they find it hard to imagine that she could “laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children.” Momma admonishes them for being ungrateful. Later, Maya and Bailey destroy the blond, blue-eyed China doll their mother sent.
Summary: Chapter 9
Big Bailey, the children’s father, comes to visit Stamps a year later unexpectedly. He owns a car, and he speaks like a white man. His height and his handsome features astound Maya. He stays in Stamps for three weeks before surprising the children with the news that he will drive them to St. Louis to see their mother. Momma seems sad, but she simply tells the children to behave well. Maya cannot believe that Big Bailey is her father and she regards him as a complete stranger. Her brother, Bailey, jokes and laughs easily with Big Bailey.
When the children see their mother for the first time, Vivian’s beauty strikes Maya dumb, and Bailey falls in love with her. Maya surmises that the intensity of Bailey’s feelings stems from the fact that he and his mother resemble each other in physical beauty and personality. When Big Bailey leaves for California a few days later, Maya feels indifferent because she considers him a stranger who has now left her with another stranger.
Summary: Chapter 10
Having landed in St. Louis during the heyday of Prohibition, Bailey and Maya meet all kinds of underground organized crime figures. Vivian’s mother, Grandmother Baxter, entertains these men, and she has influence with the police. Vivian’s brothers have city jobs, positions rarely held by black men, and they have a reputation for meanness, beating up on both whites and blacks. Maya stands in awe of her uncles, whom she describes as mean, though never cruel. They treat the children well and share stories about them as toddlers, even telling Maya how she got her nickname. When Bailey was less than three years old he learned that Maya, whose birth name is Marguerite, was his sister, and he began calling her “Mya sister” and then simply “My,” which later morphed into “Maya.” Uncle Tommy even tells Maya that she should not worry about not being pretty, because she is smart. Bailey and Maya live with their maternal grandparents for six months before moving in with Vivian and her older, fat boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, who feels insecure about his relationship with Vivian. The shift in location does not affect Maya, who never feels like she belongs anywhere. She feels that she and Bailey have been fated to live differently from other children.
Summary: Chapter 11
Maya shields herself against the confusion of St. Louis by reading fairy-tales and telling herself that she does not intend on staying there anyway. Vivian works in a gambling parlor at night. Maya pities Mr. Freeman because he spends his days at home waiting for Vivian to return. Maya begins sleeping at night with Vivian and Mr. Freeman because she suffers from nightmares. One morning after Vivian has left the bed and the house, Mr. Freeman sexually molests Maya. He does not rape her but rather masturbates on the bed while holding her close to him. Afterward, he threatens to kill Bailey if Maya ever tells anyone, but Maya, who does not understand what has happened and who actually enjoyed being held by someone, cannot understand what caused such a threat. For weeks, Mr. Freeman ignores her, and then molests her again. Again, he ignores her for weeks. Maya feels rejected and hurt, but she loses herself in other things, such as books. She wishes she were a boy because the heroes in all her favorite books and stories are male. Bailey welcomes the move to St. Louis and he makes friends, with whom he plays baseball. Maya, however, does not make any friends during this time. She and Bailey begin to grow apart, so she spends her Saturdays in the library reading fantastic adventures.
Summary: Chapter 12
In late spring, after Vivian stays out all night one time, Mr. Freeman sends Maya to buy milk. When she returns from the errand, Mr. Freeman rapes her. He threatens to kill her if she screams, and he threatens to kill Bailey if she tells anyone. Afterward, Mr. Freeman sends her to the library, but Maya returns home because of the intense physical pain she feels between her legs. She hides her underwear under her mattress and goes to bed. Vivian thinks she might be coming down with the measles. Later that night, Maya hears Vivian argue with Mr. Freeman. In the morning, Vivian tells Maya that Mr. Freeman has moved out. When Bailey tries to change the linens, the bloodied panties Maya has hidden under the mattress fall out.
Summary: Chapter 13
Vivian takes Maya to the hospital. Bailey privately urges Maya to name the rapist, assuring her that he would not allow the culprit to kill him. Maya reveals Mr. Freeman’s name, the authorities promptly arrest him. Maya thinks of herself as a grown woman, remembering that her nurses told her that she has already experienced the worst that life has to offer.
Maya feels caught in a trap when the attorney asks her whether there were any sexual incidents with Mr. Freeman prior to the rape. She fears rejection from her family if she admits to the previous incidents, but she does not want to lie either. Ultimately, she lies to the court and Mr. Freeman receives a sentence of one year and one day in prison. Surprisingly, he is temporarily released after the hearing, and a white policeman visits later that night to tell Grandmother Baxter that Mr. Freeman has been beaten to death. Maya hears them quickly drop the subject and briefly discuss casual matters before the policeman leaves.
The family never speaks of the incident, and Maya convinces herself that Mr. Freeman was killed because she lied in order to condemn him. Thinking that she has sold herself to the Devil, Maya resolves to protect others by not speaking to anyone except Bailey. At first the family accepts her silence as fallout from the rape, but after some time, they feel offended and become angry and violent with her.
Summary: Chapter 14
Maya and Bailey return to Stamps, though Maya is not sure whether Momma has sent for them or whether her St. Louis family simple became unable to handle her silence. Bailey misses Vivian, but Maya finds herself relieved to return to the barren world of Stamps. Bailey exaggerates the wonders of the big city to the curious residents, developing his sarcastic tone, but no one notices his insults. He remains kind only to Maya. She understands Bailey’s frustration, and he understands her silence.
Summary: Chapter 15
Mrs. Bertha Flowers, whom Maya reveres as the “aristocrat of Black Stamps,” plans to take Maya under her wing and prod her out of her silence. She invites Maya to her house and gives her some books and tells her to read them aloud. Maya delights to find that Mrs. Flowers has made cookies specifically for her. After reading aloud and impressing Maya with her abilities, Mrs. Flowers assigns Maya the task of memorizing a poem to recite during her next visit.
Maya returns exuberantly to the Store with the books and a bag of cookies for Bailey. Finally using her voice, Maya announces that Mrs. Flowers baked some cookies for Bailey. However, Momma flies into a rage and whips Maya because she used a phrase that Momma obscurely found offensive to God.
Summary: Chapter 16
Maya takes a job in Mrs. Viola Cullinan’s home at the age of ten. The cook, Miss Glory, a descendant of the slaves once owned by the Cullinans, informs Maya that Mrs. Cullinan could not have children and Maya feels pity for Mrs. Cullinan. One day, one of Mrs. Cullinan’s friends infuriates Maya when she suggests that Mrs. Cullinan call Maya “Mary” because “Margaret” is too long. Even worse, Maya notes, her name is Marguerite, not Margaret. When Mrs. Cullinan begins calling her Mary, Maya becomes furious. She knows Momma will not allow her to quit, so she decides she must find a way to get fired. She deliberately slacks in her work, but to no avail. Maya then takes Bailey’s advice and breaks some of Mrs. Cullinan’s heirloom china, making it look like an accident. Mrs. Cullinan drops her veneer of genteel racism and insults Maya with a racist slur. Upon hearing Mrs. Cullinan’s sobs and screams, her friends crowd into the kitchen and one of them asks if “Mary” is responsible. Mrs. Cullinan screams, “Her name’s Margaret.”
Summary: Chapter 17
One evening, Bailey stays out until well after dark. Willie and Momma do not mention their concern, but Momma takes Maya with her to search for Bailey. They find Bailey trudging home, but he does not offer an explanation for his lateness. He stoically receives a severe whipping, and Maya notes that for days it seems like Bailey has no soul. Later Bailey explains to Maya that he was late because he had seen a movie starring a white actress, Kay Francis, who looked like Vivian, and he stayed late to watch the movie a second time. They wait for weeks before another Kay Francis movie comes to the theater. Maya laughs at the irony of a beloved white actress looking just like her black mother. The movie delights Maya, but it saddens Bailey. On the way home, he frightens Maya by dashing across the tracks in front of an oncoming railway car. Maya wonders if Bailey would ever jump on one of the trains and go away. A year later, he boards a boxcar, but succeeds only in stranding himself in Baton Rouge for two weeks.
Summary: Chapter 18
The annual revival meeting interrupts the harsh daily existence in Stamps. People from all the black churches attend. This year, the preacher delivers a sermon admonishing those who practice false charity. Everyone knows it is a diatribe against white Christian hypocrisy. They give to poor blacks with the expectation that the recipient be humble and self-belittling in return. The sermon promises divine revenge and divine justice.
Afterward, the preacher announces that the unsaved should come forward and choose which church they want to join. Maya remarks that no minister has ever worked to gather members for different churches. She says he is practicing charity. Afterward, everyone relishes the sensation of righteousness. However, when they pass a noisy, secular, honky-tonk party, they fall silent and bow their heads, sensing again the presence of sin in the black world. Nevertheless, Maya notes that, to an outsider, those who attend the revival and those who visit the honky-tonk that night both appear to be trying to escape their harsh lives.
Summary: Chapter 19
My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.
(See IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED below)
People crowd inside the Store to listen to the heavyweight championship boxing match on the radio, desperately hoping that Joe Louis, a hero for the black community, will defend his title. Maya explains that if Louis were to lose, everything racist whites say about blacks would be true. His loss would represent and justify another lynching, another raped black woman, another beaten black boy. When Louis wins the fight, everyone in the Store celebrates with abandon. Maya says that Louis proves that blacks are the most powerful people in the world.
Summary: Chapter 20
During the annual summer fish fry, women show off their baking and men fish in the nearby pond. Music and the noises of children’s games fill the air. Maya wanders into a secluded clearing to sit on a tree and stare at the sky. Louise Kendricks, a pretty girl of the same age, comes upon her. At first shy toward each other, they soon hold hands and spin around while looking at the sky. They become best friends and spend hours trying to learn the complicated “Tut” language because it is even more esoteric than pig latin.
While in the seventh grade, Maya receives a note from an eighth-grader, Tommy Valdon, asking her to be his valentine. She shows it to Louise, and Louise explains that valentines mean love. Maya says aloud, “Not ever again.” She does not explain what she means to Louise. They tear the note into tiny pieces and throw it into the wind. The day before Valentine’s Day, Maya’s teacher calls the children by name and reads aloud cards sent to them from the eighth-grade class. Tommy sends another letter to Maya, stating that he saw Maya and her friend tear up his note, but he does not think she meant to hurt his feelings. He still considers her his valentine even if she does not answer his letter. He signs the note with his initials. When Maya decides to throw caution to the wind and flirt with him, Tommy’s crush has already begun to wane.
Summary: Chapter 21
Bailey constructs a tent in the yard and begins playing sexual games with girls. Bailey plays the father, the girl plays the mother, and Maya plays the baby, sitting outside to stand guard. After six months, Bailey loses his virginity to Joyce, an older, well-developed girl. Bailey begins stealing things from the Store for her. After a few months, she disappears. Her aunt later tells Momma that Joyce ran away with a railroad porter whom she met at the Store. Momma becomes flustered thinking that something upsetting like that occurred under her nose. Bailey is heartbroken. Maya never liked Joyce, but she hates her for leaving and hurting Bailey. When Joyce was around, Maya notes, Bailey did not use sarcasm.
Summary: Chapter 22
One stormy night, a fellow townsman named George Taylor comes to the Store and stays the night, still heartbroken over the death of his wife, Florida. Momma urges Mr. Taylor to be thankful for the forty years he spent with Florida, although, Momma says, it was a pity they never had children. At the mention of children, Mr. Taylor replies that Florida appeared before him the night before and told him that she wanted children. Momma and Willie ask if he had been dreaming of Florida, but Mr. Taylor insists that he was awake. Maya has always hated the custom of telling ghost stories, but Mr. Taylor’s account scares her even more because he insists it is real.
To occupy herself otherwise, Maya remembers that she went to Florida’s funeral. She did not want to go, but Florida had left her yellow brooch to Maya, and Momma insisted that she attend the services. The experience turned out to be Maya’s first confrontation with mortality. At the funeral, Florida seemed to her like the short-lived mud sculptures so often made by children playing in the summer.
Returning from her memory, Maya cannot help but hear Mr. Taylor narrating his experience. The night before, he saw a fat, blond, blue-eyed baby angel laughing at him. He heard his wife’s moaning voice, and the angel laughed harder. Eventually, Mrs. Taylor’s voice moaned that she wanted children.
Momma suggests that if it was not a dream, maybe Mrs. Taylor wants him to work with the children in the church. The atmosphere of eerie gloom passes when the conversation returns to mundane, everyday things. Maya climbs into bed with Momma, secure in the knowledge that she could drive away scary spirits.
Summary: Chapter 23
Maya notes that black families in Stamps consider the eighth-grade graduation a great event. When Maya takes her seat in the school auditorium, however, she feels uneasy. The white speaker, Mr. Edward Donleavy, gives a speech about the improvements in the local schools. The white school has received new lab equipment for science classes thanks to his efforts. He also states that he has bragged to many important people that several great college athletes graduated from Maya’s school. Maya feels that he has blemished the joy of the graduation day by insinuating that black children only achieved greatness through sports, not through academics. The members of the eighth-grade class hang their heads in shame. Maya laments the fact that she has no control over her life and wishes that Christopher Columbus never sailed to the New World. After his speech, Donleavy rushes to leave.
Henry Reed’s valedictory speech dispels the dismal atmosphere, but Maya reacts with cynicism and pessimism. Henry continues to speak with strength and clarity, and afterward he turns his back to the audience and addresses the graduating class sitting on the stage. He leads them in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a song known popularly as the Negro National Anthem. Maya listens to the words for the very first time, drops her cynical attitude, and takes pride in her black community.
Summary: Chapter 24
Maya develops an excruciating toothache. The nearest black dentist practices twenty-five miles away, so Momma takes Maya to see Dr. Lincoln, a white dentist in town. During the Great Depression, Momma loaned money to many people, including Dr. Lincoln. Now she believes he owes her a favor. When they arrive, Dr. Lincoln states that he does not treat black patients. Momma reminds him that her generous loan saved him before. He reminds her that he repaid the loan, adding that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than in Maya’s black mouth. Momma leaves Maya outside and advances into Dr. Lincoln’s office. Maya imagines Momma as a superhero, wielding her powers and forbidding Dr. Lincoln ever to work in Stamps again. In reality, Momma tells Dr. Lincoln that he owes her interest on the loan she previously made to him. He protests, saying that she never asked for interest before, but he pays her the ten dollars, demanding a receipt to seal the deal. Afterward, Momma takes Maya to the black dentist in Texarkana. Talking with Uncle Willie later on, Momma indicates that even though she sinned in making Dr. Lincoln pay interest retroactively, he deserved it.
Summary: Chapter 25
He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death.
(See IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED below)
One day, Bailey returns home from an errand, pale and shaken. He asks what black people did to white people to incite so much hatred. He has just seen a black man’s dead, rotting body pulled from a pond. Grinning at the body, a white man ordered Bailey to help load the man into the wagon and then pretended that he was going to lock Bailey and the other black men in with the dead body. Not long afterward, Momma begins planning a trip to take Bailey and Maya to live in California with their mother.
Summary: Chapter 26
Momma lives in Los Angeles with Bailey and Maya while Vivian makes living arrangements for her children. Maya and Bailey begin to see Vivian not just as a superhuman beauty but also as a real person with fears and insecurities of her own. Vivian seems concerned with her children’s well-being and even throws them a special party one night at two-thirty in the morning, enchanting Maya with her fun-loving and spontaneous nature.
Although trained as a nurse, Vivian supports herself and her children by running poker games or gambling. Maya notes that even though Vivian exhibits temperamental, melodramatic outbursts, she never compromises fairness. Maya discusses Vivian’s power and her honesty. Once, Maya recalls, Vivian shot one of her partners for verbally insulting her, and afterward, they retained their mutual admiration for each other. After all, Vivian had warned him that she would shoot before pulling the trigger.
Soon after, the U.S. enters World War II and Vivian marries Daddy Clidell, a successful businessman. The family moves to San Francisco.
Summary: Chapters 27 & 28
Maya comments on the changes that occur in San Francisco after the U.S. enters World War II. Provincial black migrants, not dissimilar to the people Maya knew in Stamps, flow into the city, working side by side with illiterate whites in the defense industry. The black workers replace the Japanese, who have been unjustly interned by the U.S. government in camps. Maya notes that no one ever speaks about the Japanese displacement. She says the black community unconsciously pays little attention to the Japanese because blacks focus on advancing themselves in the face of white prejudice.
The constant aura of change and displacement in wartime San Francisco makes Maya feel at home for the first time in her life. Upon her entrance into school, she automatically gets promoted a grade and later transfers to a white school where she is one of only three black students. The white students appear aggressive and better educated. Maya remembers only one teacher from school, Miss Kirwin, who never played favorites and never treated Maya differently for being black. When she is fourteen, Maya receives a scholarship to the California Labor School where she studies dance and drama.
Summary: Chapter 29
The owner of numerous apartment buildings and pool halls, Daddy Clidell becomes the only true father figure Maya ever knows. She loves his strength and his tenderness. He is dignified, but not haughty. He has no inferiority complex about receiving little education, but he also lacks the arrogance usually associated with men of great accomplishment. Daddy Clidell introduces Maya to his con-men friends who have learned to swindle bigoted whites. They once conned a racist white man from Tulsa who had a history of cheating blacks into paying $40,000 for a piece of property that did not exist. Maya cannot regard the con men as criminals because she says the deck has been stacked against them from the start anyway. Ethics, she notes, depends upon necessity and are therefore different in the black community.
Summary: Chapter 30
Big Bailey invites Maya to spend the summer with him and his girlfriend, Dolores. Dolores and Maya exchange letters and anticipate incorrectly each other’s physical appearance. Both Dolores and Maya are shocked when they meet for the first time. Big Bailey has promised to marry Dolores, but he keeps postponing the wedding plans. Much to Maya’s surprise, they live in a low-class mobile home. Nevertheless, Dolores tries to maintain the home in prim-and-proper style, and Maya’s messy nature disturbs Dolores from the beginning. Big Bailey watches the mutual discomfort between Maya and Dolores with amusement.
A fluent speaker of Spanish and an avid chef both by trade and in the home, Big Bailey makes frequent trips to Mexico supposedly to buy groceries. One day Big Bailey invites Maya on one of his shopping trips, inciting Dolores’s jealousy. During the trip, he jokes with a guard by offering Maya to him as a wife. He drives past the border towns and stops outside Ensenada. Women, men, and children greet him warmly. Big Bailey becomes a different person. He relaxes and stops putting on airs. Maya, who knows a bit of Spanish from school, begins to enjoy herself, but when she cannot find her father later in the evening, she becomes frightened and sits alone in the car, waiting for him. Eventually he staggers out drunk and passes out in the car. Maya drives fifty miles back to the border even though she has never driven a car before, let alone one with a clutch. She has a minor accident at the checkpoint. Big Bailey regains consciousness and settles the matter before driving the rest of the way home. He is neither surprised nor angry about the accident. He does not seem surprised that Maya could drive, and Maya dislikes the fact that he does not appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. They ride home in silence.
Summary: Chapter 31
After returning home, Maya overhears an argument between Dolores and Big Bailey. Dolores feels that Maya has come between them. Big Bailey leaves the house in a huff, leaving Dolores sobbing alone. Maya approaches Dolores and tells her that she never meant to come between them. Maya feels strong and honorable doing her good deed, but Dolores rebuffs Maya’s peaceful gesture and insults her, calling her mother, Vivian, a whore. Furious, Maya tells Dolores she is going to slap her and then does so. Dolores retaliates and Maya realizes that Dolores has stabbed her with scissors. Bleeding, Maya runs out of the house and locks herself in her father’s car. Big Bailey hears Dolores screaming and returns to investigate. He takes Dolores inside the house then drives Maya, who feels empowered by the events, to a friend’s house, where a woman bandages Maya’s wound. Afterward, he drives her to the home of another friend, where she spends the night. Big Bailey visits her at noon the next day and gives her some money, promising to return later that evening. Dreading having to face her father’s friends, Maya packs some food and leaves. She cannot return to Vivian, however, because she would never be able to hide her wound. Telling Vivian would only precipitate trouble between Vivian and Big Bailey, and Maya guiltily remembers Mr. Freeman’s death all too clearly.
Summary: Chapter 32
After leaving Big Bailey’s friends’ house, Maya spends the night in a car in a junkyard. When she wakes, a group of black, Mexican, and white homeless teenagers stand outside laughing at her through the windows. They tell her she can stay as long as she follows the rules: people of the opposite sex cannot sleep together, stealing is forbidden because it attracts police attention, and everyone works, committing their earnings to the community. Maya stays for a month. Everyone enters a dance contest on Saturday nights, and Maya and her partner win second prize during her last weekend. Maya learns to appreciate diversity and tolerance fully that month, something that influences her the rest of her life, she notes in retrospect. At the end of the summer, Maya calls Vivian and asks her to pay her airfare to San Francisco. The group accepts the news of her impending departure with detachment, although everyone wishes her well.
Summary: Chapter 33
Maya notes that she has changed much since the start of the summer, but Bailey, who also seems to have aged significantly, shows indifference toward Maya’s tales. Still, they share an interest in dancing and become a sensation at the big-band dances in the city auditorium. Meanwhile, Maya notes, Bailey and Vivian have become estranged. Unconsciously seeking Vivian’s approval, Bailey begins wearing flashy clothing and dating a white prostitute, trying to model himself after Vivian’s male associates. Vivian seems unaware that her own preferences have influenced his tastes. She demands that he stop dating the white prostitute, and he begins disobeying her rules. Eventually, Bailey moves out. He and Vivian quickly reconcile, and she promises to arrange a job for him in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Maya acts as a neutral party but becomes terribly upset when Bailey moves out. Bailey assures her that he has a mature mind and that the time has come for him to leave the nest.
Summary: Chapter 34
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
(See IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED below)
Maya decides to take a semester off from school and work. For weeks, she persists in trying to get a job as a streetcar conductor despite racist hiring policies. She finally succeeds in becoming the first black person to work on the San Francisco streetcars. When she returns to school, she feels out of place among her classmates. American black women, she says, must not only face the common problems associated with adolescence, but also racism and sexism. Therefore, it does not surprise her that black women who survive these conflicts possess strong characters.
Summary: Chapter 35
The Well of Loneliness (a classic work of 1920s lesbian fiction by Radclyffe Hall) is Maya’s first introduction to lesbianism. She does not really understand what a lesbian is, and she begins to fear that she is turning into one because she confuses lesbianism with being a hermaphrodite. She notes that she has a deep voice, underdeveloped breasts and hips, and no under-arm hair. She resolves to ask Vivian about a strange growth on her vagina. Vivian explains that the changes are perfectly normal.
Vivian’s answer relieves Maya, but she still has unanswered fears about whether she might be a lesbian. Maya decides to get a boyfriend to settle the matter once and for all. However, all of her male acquaintances busily chase light-skinned, straight-haired girls. Maya casually and frankly propositions one of two handsome brothers who live near her, but their unromantic, unsatisfying encounter does not relieve her anxieties about being an abnormal girl. Three weeks later, she discovers that she is pregnant.
Summary: Chapter 36
Maya accepts full responsibility for her pregnancy. She writes to Bailey for advice, and he tells her to keep it a secret. Vivian opposes abortions, and he fears she would make Maya quit school. Maya throws herself into school and confesses after graduating that she is eight months pregnant. Vivian and Daddy Clidell calmly accept Maya’s impending, unwed motherhood without condemnation.
Maya gives birth to a son. She is fascinated by the baby and afraid to touch him. Vivian finally makes Maya sleep with her three-week-old son. Fearing that she will crush him, Maya attempts unsuccessfully to stay awake all night. Vivian wakes her later to show how the baby lies, resting comfortably in the crook of her arm. Vivian tells Maya that she does not have to worry about doing the right thing because if her heart is in the right place, she will do the right thing regardless. Maya peacefully returns to sleep next to her son.
IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS EXPLAINED
1. If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.
This vivid assertion ends the opening section of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Although this section, which acts as a prologue, mostly emphasizes the point of view of Maya at five or six years old, this statement clearly comes from Angelou’s adult voice. Looking back on her childhood experiences, Maya notes that she not only fell victim to a hostile, racist, and sexist society, but to other social forces as well, including the displacement she felt from her family and her peers. Maya feels displaced primarily because when she was three years old, her parents sent her away to live with her grandmother. This early separation, as well as subsequent ones, leaves her feeling rootless for most of her childhood. Angelou’s autobiography likens the experience of growing up as a black girl in the segregated American South to having a razor at one’s throat. Her constant awareness of her own displacement—the fact that she differed from other children in appearance and that she did not have a sense of belonging associated with anyone or anyplace—becomes the “unnecessary insult” that she must deal with at such a young age. Over the course of the work, Maya details numerous negative effects of such displacement, including her susceptibility to Mr. Freeman’s sexual molestation.
2. A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.
In this passage in Chapter 8, Angelou captures Maya’s childlike observations about what makes white people different. Her fixation on clothing as a sign of difference also refers back to the incident in church when she suddenly realizes that her fairy-tale taffeta dress is really an old, faded white woman’s hand-me-down. Stamps, Arkansas, suffers so thoroughly from segregation and Maya’s world is so completely enmeshed in the black community that she often finds it hard to imagine what white people look like. They appear to her more like spectral ghosts with mysterious powers—and wonderful possessions—than as fellow human beings. At the same time, from a young age Maya knows that white people bear responsibility for the suffering of the cotton-pickers. She also learns from Momma that it is best not to address any white people directly, as it might lead to mortal danger. Momma goes so far as never to even speak about white people without using the title “they.”
3. My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.
In this scene in Chapter 19, Maya crowds around the Store’s radio with the rest of the community to listen to Joe Louis defend his world heavyweight boxing title. As Maya conveys in this passage, the entire black community has its hopes and psychological salvation bound up in the fists of Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” This passage describes the precarious nature of black pride in the face of hostile oppression, highlighting the staggering and wrenching significance this boxing match held for the community as the community teeters between salvation and despair. The rarity of black people achieving public acclaim in both the black and white communities meant that the few who managed to do so had to bear the expectations of the black community. The match becomes an explicit staging of black against white. Louis’s loss would mean the “fall” of the race and a return to the idea that whites had a right to denigrate black people. Cynics might say that Louis’s win does little more than stave off the black community’s psychological despair. It does not turn the tables on whites because there is no denying that whites still hold all the power. His public victory, however, proves to blacks in the Store that they are the most powerful people in the world and enables them to live another day with strength and vigor in the face of oppression. Racism plays many psychological games with blacks and whites, and perhaps Louis’s public recognition helps to teach both whites and blacks to accept African-Americans as equals.
4. Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate.
In this passage in Chapter 25, Bailey reels from having encountered a dead, rotting black man and having witnessed a white man’s lighthearted satisfaction at seeing the body. Maya emphasizes that the traumatic experience forces him to try to confront a degree of hatred that he cannot comprehend. Maya does not say that he succeeds in comprehending the reasoning behind white hatred. Bailey asks Uncle Willie to explain how colored people had offended whites originally, but both Uncle Willie and Momma try to hide the sickening, debilitating truth from Bailey. This section draws attention to the idea that Bailey’s life depended upon him not understanding or attempting to understand how racism operates against black men. Bailey’s experience here precipitates Momma’s decision to remove the children from both the physical and psychological dangers associated with growing up in the South. This quote also illustrates the fact that while Angelou writes mostly about the experiences of black girls and women living in the segregated South, she also empathizes with the experiences of her male relatives.
5. The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.
This passage in Chapter 34 addresses why black women have strength of character. Maya says that most of the strong black women in her novel are “survivors.” They have strong characters quite simply because they have survived against impossible odds. Therefore, they obviously show heroism, courage, and strength. Moreover, Maya states that the odds pitted against black women include not only the triple threat of sexism, racism, and black powerlessness, but also the simultaneous presence of “common forces of nature” that assault and confuse all children. Maya has had to grow up more quickly than the children around her. Her experiences—driving the car in Mexico, living in the junkyard, returning to witness Bailey move out of the house, and then successfully fighting to get a job as the first black conductor on the San Francisco streetcars, rather than go back to a school where she would not belong—have made her feel displaced and older than her years. Maya is already on her way toward becoming “a formidable character” as a result of the many assaults she deals with in “her tender years,” but this does not mean that Maya is an adult. Maya’s discussion of the “common forces of nature” foreshadows how her journey of survival has yet to meet the obstacles of adolescence, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy. These obstacles face all children, but for black females, they exacerbate an already difficult situation.