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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Jacob Bass

on 16 June 2014

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Transcript of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

How is this novel relevant to American lit?
Regarded by many as Angelou's greatest novel
Deals with themes of family, race, challenges, triumphs, and individuals vs. society
The novel was originally released to critical acclaim and censorship
First real novel about black female life
When her book first hit the stands, it really resonated with how Americans felt at the time. Racial tensions were high as the Civil Rights Act had just been passed
Written in the Contemporary Style
Writing Style and Literary Movements
Contemporary Literature
Plot Overview
Maya (3) and Bailey (4) are shipped off to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother (who they call Momma) and their disabled Uncle Willie after their parents divorce. They live and work in the only store in the black section of Stamps.
"Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for good, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger." (16)
The two kids soon become educated but are also exposed to how racist some people are. Maya forms a disliking of white people.
"I remember never believing that whites were really real." (25)
Author Overview
"Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Hailed as a global renaissance woman, Dr. Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist." (www.mayaangelou.com/biography)
Born in St Louis, MO, in 1928
Raised in Stamps, AK and St Louis, MO
As a teenager, she won a scholarship to study art and music at San Francisco Labor School
She had sort of a traumatic childhood
Bounced back and forth between homes
She dropped out of Labor School and became SF's first African American female cable car conductor
In the 50's she studied Modern Dance and went on tour in Europe with
Peggy and Bess

She mastered French, Arabic, Italian, and Fanu (West African)
She became good friends with Malcolm X and MLK
X's and King's assassinations left her devastated
In the late 60's, with the help of friend, James Baldwin, she wrote and published
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 2000, served on two presidential committees, and read a poem at President Clinton's inauguration.
She died in 2014
Significant characters - Protagonist

-begins the story as a young and innocent girl
-lanky, awkward and feels judged by her gangled appearance
"...I was big, elbowy and grating... I was describes as shit color... and my head was covered with black steel wool." (22)
-faces the harsh reality of how blacks are treated in society at the time
"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." (4)
-a life of personal traumas: abandoned by mother and father, raped, hatred because of her race, confusion due to sexuality when she is impregnated at 16
-Maya also experiences success; she defies racism by becoming the first black female conductor on a San Francisco streetcar

Very character driven.
Modern narrative - shows a harsh reality.
“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.” (4)
Self-conscious - Shows plenty of self commentary
"After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself. The unquestioning acceptance by my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity." (253)
Also shows social relevance (racism)
“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense" (180)
Plot Overview
Years later they get Christmas presents from their parents - who the kids up until that point thought were dead. A year after that, their dad (Big Bailey Johnson) comes and leaves, taking his children with him. He leaves them with their mother (Vivian Baxter) in St. Louis, Missouri before heading to California by himself.
"A year later our father came to Stamps without warning. It was awful for Bailey and me to encounter the reality one abrupt morning." (54)
While living with her mother, the eight-year old Maya meets Mr. Freeman, her mother's boyfriend. He molests then later rapes her. Maya tries to keep it a secret, but everything is found out. They go to court and Mr. Freeman is sent to jail. He is then murdered not long after being released.
Maya and Bailey are eventually sent back to Stamps due to Maya refusing to speak and her mother's family finding Maya disrespectful.
"I didn't want to lie...so I used silence as a retreat." (84)
Plot Overview
Significant Characters - Antagonist
Growing up an African American female in the US before the Civil Rights movement/feminism
-causes all of Maya’s problems and conflicts in life
-unable to strive and achieve in the world with the boundaries set for her because of her race and gender
-characters in the novel that bring the antagonist to life:
Mr Freeman
- Vivian’s (Maya’s mother) boyfriend. Rapes and molests Maya at the age of 8. This is ironic because Maya describes him as a "big brown bear" (71). Represents the struggle of young females in the era of the book
Dr Lincoln
- The white dentist that turns down Maya’s toothache because he refuses to operate or help a black patient. He would “rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth” (189). Dr Lincoln represents the impact of racism on African Americans

Once back in Stamps, Maya starts to find true happiness when she meets Mrs. Flowers. Not only does her voice come back, but she is introduced to the world of poetry.
“....She had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.” (200) (note: a djinn is a genie)
Maya gets a job working for Mrs. Cullinan, a rich white woman who’s a bit of a jerk. Not being able to take it anymore, she rebels against Mrs. Cullinan by breaking her favorite casserole dish and quitting her job.
When Maya gets two cavities, Momma brings her to the only dentist in Stamps, who happens to be a white man. He tells Momma that he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth than in Maya’s.
"It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness." (187)
Finally, Bailey encounters a dead, rotting black man who was pulled from a river...as well as a white man’s satisfaction at the death. Momma, sick of the racism, decides to bring the two children to California where their mother is.
Plot Overview
After living in San Francisco for a bit, Maya’s father invites her to come to Southern California with him for a summer. Her dad’s girlfriend, Dolores, doesn’t like her at all. After returning from a trip to Mexico with her father, Maya and Dolores get into a fight that ends with Maya getting injured. Maya runs away and stays with a group of homeless kids in a junkyard before returning to San Francisco.
Bailey gets kicked out of the house by his mother when he starts to become rebellious and brings a prostitute home. Bored with her brother being gone, Maya decides to get a job as a streetcar conductor. After fighting for weeks, she becomes the first black conductor in San Francisco.
"I was given blood tests, aptitude tests, physical coordination tests, and Rorschachs, then on a blissful day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars." (269)
Plot Overview - Conclusion
When she returns to school, Maya reads
The Well of Loneliness
and starts panicking when she starts to think that she is a lesbian. To get rid of her worries, she goes and has sex with a neighborhood boy. This gets her pregnant. She hides her pregnancy until she graduates from high school.
"...I hefted the burden of pregnancy at sixteen onto my own shoulders where it belonged." (284)
Maya gives birth to a boy. The book ends with Maya feeling confident that she’ll be a great mom and that she will take care of her child.
"Mother whispered 'See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.' She turned out the light and I patted my son's body lightly and went back to sleep." (289)
Significant themes - Racial Inequality
Writing Style and Literary Movements
Depicts racist life as it is.
"I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil." (2-3)
It's an autobiography.
Showed the struggles of a black girl living in the South.
“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power" (272)
Slavery mentioned.
"Knowing Momma, I knew that I never knew Momma. Her African-bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken." (194)
Ethical struggles.
-examples: white speaker at eighth-grade graduation discouraged blacks, Maya's boss wanted to call her Mary, dentist refused to treat her toothache, and segregation in Stamps
-"People in Stamps used to say that the whites were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn't buy vanilla ice cream." (49)
-victory of Joe Louis gave Maya hope in the black individual
-racism confuses Maya’s belief of what is right and what is beautiful (white skin, blond hair, blue eyes)
because of this she is not confident in herself at all
a “black ugly dream” (2)
-by the end of the memoir, Maya has somewhat defied the injustice due to her race when she is the first black streetcar conductor

Significant Themes - Abandonment and Displacement
-Maya's mother and father leave her to live with her grandmother at a very young age; she doesn't feel "wanted"
-When her brother Bailey leaves her for a short two weeks she feels extremely lonely
- after their father returns just to leave again, and they are sent back to Stamps from St. Louis, Maya and Bailey feel like they are unwanted for something they have done
constant feeling of not belonging
-Maya moves seven times throughout the novel
"Moving from the house where the family was centered meant absolutely nothing to me. It was simply a small pattern in the grand design of our lives." (68)
-both siblings are constantly searching for a mother and father figure
Significant themes - Appearance
-Maya believes throughout the novel that only whites can be beautiful
-she is not confident in how she looks, especially the color of her skin
-"Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten?" (2)
-the belief of society in the time Maya was growing up was that whites were superior over African Americans; hence why she idolizes their appearance, and pities her own
Significant symbols - White People
-white people symbolize the racial tension
-"I remember never believing that whites were really real." (25)
this shows that the town was so segregated that Maya doesn't even know if whites exist
-whites represent the fear and unknown put into the heart of a young black girl
Significant symbols - Easter dress
-Maya has a special dress for Easter mass, and she thinks it is beautiful until she puts it on
-"Hanging softly over the black singer sewing machine, [the dress] looked like magic... but Easter's early morning sun showed the dress to be a plain ugly cut down..." (2)
-the dress symbolizes how Maya's ideal beauty is white
-instead of proving her "black ugly dream" to be false, it becomes a reality
Significant symbols - The Store
-The Store is the shop owned by Momma
-main setting during the first half of the novel
-the town's center; it brings the African American community together
-"Over the years it became the lay center of activities in town" (3)
The Store was a place Maya always belonged to - not a feeling she was used to
-The Store represents hard work, commitment, and a feeling of belonging to the community of Stamps
In Memory Of Maya Angelou

April 1928 - May 2014
Other Characters - Bailey
-Maya's older brother
-always has stuck by Maya's side no matter wha
a rare consistency in her life
-a fluent, handsome, intelligent young boy
-searches for maternal affection through other women when he plays "Momma and Poppa"
symbolizes his neglect from a parent and his feeling of abandonment
Other Characters - Momma
-Maya and Bailey's grandmother who raises them in Stamps for most of their childhood
-the owner of The Store
-shapes the children into the people they grew up to be
strict rules, extremely religious and faithful to God, emphasis on generosity
-provides hope for a better future for the children through her intense love and care for them
Maya Angelou's Legacy
"In Maya Angelou, I found some answers. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explained more to me than the Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins novels that we passed around the classroom ever did. Maya Angelou told me quite clearly — your body is yours." (Fernando)
Fernando, Roshi. "When Parents Refused To Talk, Angelou Explained Sex - And Healing." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014
Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970. Print.

Fernando, Roshi. "When Parents Refused To Talk, Angelou Explained Sex - And Healing." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.
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