Maya Angelou uses her memoir I Know Why The Caged Birds Sings, to share her story about her difficult life growing up as a black girl in the South. Her story takes her from Stamps Arkansas all the way to Oakland, California. Through this journey, she travels to different cities, with a major event happening in each city.
Angelou incorporates the five elements of a story: opening, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution by using each city as a backdrop for pivotal events in her life. Opening:The opening of the book takes place in Stamps, Arkansas where Maya and her brother Bailey are turned over to their grandmother’s care. They are three and four years old respectively and have to travel alone across the Southwest after their parents’ divorce. Further context about the experience is given when Maya discovers years later “that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.
” While Maya and Bailey are part of a larger migration of young children, the journey is one that fills them with loneliness and fear. Furthermore, this upheaval leaves both Maya and Bailey with feelings of rejection and loss. Maya states, “I’m being sent away because I’m unlovable.” She feels trapped in the cage of her own diminished image, referencing for the first time the image of the “caged bird.”.
Angelou also uses the opening to highlight the character of Momma, her grandmother, one of the many strong female role models in Maya’s life. Momma is the epitome of a Southern African-American woman. She is the only African-American woman that owns a store in the neighborhood and is a rather well off for a rural black woman. The children do not suffer any economic hardship – not even during the Great Depression. Her store is the center of the town and is at its busiest during the cotton season. Momma is typically referred to as “Mrs” by the people in town, further showing that she is a respectable figure in town. She manages a strict household with necessary routine and goes to church every Sunday. She keeps a distance from white people, whom she refers to as “they,” because she has been taught from a young age that they are powerful and not to be questioned.
Despite her strong-willed nature, Momma doesn’t ever speak out about white people because she doesn’t want to cause trouble for her friends and family. Momma becomes a significant figure in Maya and Bailey’s lives.Rising Action: The rising action takes place in St.
Louis, after Maya’s father enters her life and subsequently sends her and Bailey to live with their mother, a mother who is a stranger. When they finally meet their mother, they are fascinated with her lifestyle and beauty. They become swept up in her lifestyle and the sadness caused by the abandonment of their father becomes a distant memory. Maya and Bailey find out that the big city is nothing like the small town in Stamps, Arkansas. They see a mixture of races dispersed throughout each neighborhood and are introduced to cuisines of different cultures. Angelou describes a rotating cast of characters that the children interact within St. Louis including a great-grandmother, three bad-tempered uncles their mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.
The experience in St. Louis takes a turn for the worst when Mr. Freeman molests Maya the morning after the children arrive in St. Louis and her life is forever changed. He threatens to kill Maya if she tells anybody and scares her into silence. The sexual abuse continues past this first encounter.
When nobody is home, Mr. Freeman rapes her with the music turned on loud furthering Maya’s physical and emotional pain. Even before anyone finds out, Mr. Freeman leaves, so she is forced to stay silent. It isn’t until Maya’s mom sees her stained panties that she knows what had happened to her. Mr. Freeman is arrested and put on trial.
At the court, Mr. Freeman asks Maya if he had in any other way had touched her before, she says no because she felt that she had to. She starts to feel guilty about the lie she has told. When she eavesdropped the adults’ conversation, she had found out that Mr.
Freeman was kicked to death. In her seven-year-old mind, she had thought that because she had lied she had cost him his life and therefore had stopped speaking for five years. Then, she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps, Arkansas, perhaps because of Maya’s muteness.Maya and Bailey’s neighbors came and ask to see them about the city life they had experienced in California. Life for Maya was muted and dull, she had only listened to words being told to her but the words would never come out. One day, a congenial woman named Mrs. Flowers invites Maya out to eat on her porch and talk.
Maya’s meeting with Mrs. Flowers is the first step to her healing process after rape. Mrs. Flowers states that although Maya does good work at school, being able to speak out was essential. “Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get.
That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” By introducing Maya to the power of speaking aloud Mrs. Flowers provides one of the first links for us between young Maya and the future Maya character who is the famous author and poet we know today. Bailey comes into the store one day, in complete shock to find a dead black man fished out of the pond; white men stood over the body and smiled which disturbed Bailey. He asks Uncle Willie and Momma why do black people hate white people so much and what did black people do wrong. They completely avoid the question.
Maya believes that they are sent to California because they could not survive in this living conditions for black people. Momma decides to send Marguerite and Bailey to Los Angeles by train. They are going to live with their mother again or also refer to as Vivian. Falling ActionMaya gets nervous visiting her mother again. As she makes living arrangements in San Francisco, Maya and Momma get comfortable in Los Angeles. Maya remembers that her mother adapted quite well to the new living conditions in California; when she says that she was going to leave again Bailey and Maya are anxious to live with their mother again.
Their mother is a beautiful woman who captivates them with her charm. As they start to remember her, they start to feel better about themselves. They live in a dingy apartment in Oakland for a month or so, with Grandmother Baxter and two uncles.
During World War II, Vivian gets married to Daddy Clidell. Maya starts to like Daddy Clidell; he introduces her to the vibrant characters of the neighborhood. He teaches her activities such as poker, blackjack, tonk, high, low, Jick, Jack and the game. Climax During the summer, Maya takes the train down to Southern California to spend time with her father and her father’s girlfriend, Dolores. Her father decides to take her on a trip to Mexico which makes Dolores jealous. They drive down to the border and mountain tops to land up in a bar where everyone seemed to have a good familial relationship with her father.
Maya seems to have a good time there, that is until her father disappears; she finds him drunk and they lift him down the car so he falls asleep in the backseat. Although she does not know how to drive, she drives them down the mountain so they wouldn’t spend the night in town. She drives the car forcibly, trying to find the functions of the car counterparts. She gets to the border but ends up crashing the car in front of her. She wakes her father up and the problem of getting into a fight seemed to be squashed immediately. Maya is hurt that he doesn’t recognize her performance of driving down those steep mountains, the rest of the car ride is quiet and tense. When they arrive home, Dolores and Bailey Sr, have a fight; Dolores wants to marry him but she does not want Maya in their lives. He yells at her and leaves the room.
Maya feels sorry for him and she steps into the living room to try to talk it out with Dolores. Out of spite, Dolores calls Maya’s mother a whore and Maya slaps her in the face. Dolores somehow is able to cut Maya so she has to run away to protect herself. Her father finds he injured and drives her away to a friend who is a nurse. She disappears after this and runs away downtown because she believes that her father would prefer it that way.Homeless and nearly broke, Maya spends the night in a junkyard car.
The next morning she wakes up, she is founded by a group of teenagers who live in the junkyard. She learns that they have low paying jobs during the day. They agree to accept her into their group as long as she follows their rules which includes that she can not sleep with the opposite sex. They share everything among the group and Maya lives there for a month where she learns to drive and dance. She enters a dancing contest and she and her partner had won the second price.
The group was made up of different races, all friends with one another. “I was never again to sense myself to solidly outside the pale of the human race.” Chapter 32 pg 247. She feels at home with her peers for the first time and develops a real tolerance from before.
Learning to meet and understand people who have drastically different lives than her, gave her a vital experience as an author and a poet. Finally, Maya asks her mother to give her an airline fare after her wound was healed. Her mother notices how thin she has become and feeds her food. Maya returns back to her school, California Labor School, however, she becomes disconnected from the education being taught to her – she feels that she cannot relate to her classmates; her strange experiences have made her “aware”. She believes that she knows more about the way the world works. Maya can’t put up with the frivolous student life so she tells her mother she quits school.
She reflects that the defiant and strong African American woman is often met with disdain or scorn. But she believes that it is the outcome of a long and tedious struggle that should be met with respect. Maya has grown up from an insecure African American girl in the South to an independent woman prepared for any obstacles that come in her way- her independence and defiance has been part of her integral growth. ResolutionAs a typical high school teenager, Maya becomes interested in sex and sexuality. She believes she is a lesbian because of her awkward stature and body type so she is interested in getting her first boyfriend.
Maya is still afraid of being sexually different- which is understandable considering how her race and gender has excluded her before. She views lesbianism as yet something that could get her judged, and though she doesn’t understand what this term means she tries to correct this by having sex with her neighbor. Maya considers lesbianism as being different, the fear of this term comes from long-lifetime oppression she faced as a black person in the early 20th century. Three weeks later, she finds out that she is pregnant with a baby boy. She hides her pregnancy from everyone though she does not try to feign this lie. Although her body is changing at an incredibly fast pace, her mother is unaware of Maya’s more feminine figure. Faced with a new struggle (pregnancy), Maya once again returns to books to cope with this change. Maya returns back to school and finds it to be a comfortable refuge.
After about six months, of attending school she receives her high school diploma in a high school gym and when she comes back home, she tells her stepfather, Daddy Clidell that she is pregnant. Since Maya is now an expecting mother, she is looking towards the future and is committed to succeeding. Vivien and Daddy Clidell are accepting of her pregnancy and go as to far as to buy her maternity and baby clothes. Three months later, a relatively painless labor, Maya’s son is born. She is scared to touch him, fearing that if she touched him then she would drop him. About three weeks later, her mother lays the baby down on Maya’s bedroom and says he will sleep with her. At first, Maya reluctantly disagrees because she feels that she will surely crush or hurt him but the baby falls peacefully at Maya’s side. Her birth and her baby boy sleeping peacefully down her side are signs of hope for her upcoming future: Maya has let go of the oppression, victimization, and doubts of her past.
ThemeIn Maya ‘s autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing, many themes are presented such as love, identity, sexuality, and literature. The one that seemed to be the most present in this book is a race: To be white was to have privileges that black people yearned for. As a young girl, Maya seemed to be very insecure about her own skin color. She saw white people as an attractive superior race, which was many people’s viewpoints in the early 20th century. It was a dream of hers to be like the white little girls who had soft hair and who was not looked like they could ever commit a crime. As a child growing up in the South, Marguerite is slowly able to grasp the segregation around the blacks and whites. She is taught by her grandmother to fear and avoid white people. “Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life she and her generation and all the Negroes went before had found, and found to be safe ones.
” Chapter 7 page 107. At the same, she teaches her grandchildren to pay respect to white people even if they were powhitetrash (white people of less stature). In her novel, Maya describes that it was dangerous for a black person to talk to a white person. During this time period, Ku Klux Klan referred to as the boys by the sheriff, killed black men for looking at white women in a certain way.
Blacks are treated like second-class citizens in the U.S. and are in fear for their lives. This fear and Maya’s self-loathing of her skin color is the reason why Maugerute has a desire to be white.
White people in her seven-year-old mind are prettier, richer and are less likely to be killed for their own skin color. They are treated far better and have never faced prejudice or racial discrimination in their lives. Maya Angelou identifies the complex hierarchy within the black community between the dark-skinned people and light skinned people. Light skinned people were considered more beautiful.
Marguerite’s mother is light-skinned; Marguerite upon returning with her at age 8 thinks that she is too pretty to be a mother. She rationalizes her own rejection with the cultural appreciation for light-skinned people. Maya is dark and her mother is light skinned- she believes this must be the reason why her mother left her. She watches in shock and horror when her grandmother is called by her first name by three young white children.
Her grandmother does not even retaliate back. We also see this example from chapter 11 when a group of white girls began throwing rocks at the design Marguerite had built outside of the store. Marguerite knowing that her grandmother had the wit of a bull’s tongue, had expected her to lash out at them. Instead, she hums a hymn and begins sweeping.
As Maya gets older, she is approached by more personal incidents of racism, such as the white dentist’s refusal to treat her. Maya develops an excruciating toothache however the nearest black dentist is twenty-five miles away so Momma takes her to see Dr. Lincoln, a dentist nearby.
During the Great Depression, many people had loaned food and other resources, Mr. Lincoln is one of those people who still owes her money. When they arrive Dr. Lincoln states that he can have already paid that loan and that he would “rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than in Maya’s black mouth.” Chapter 17 page 206. They end up traveling twenty- five miles to the black doctor in Texarkana.
Dr. Lincoln’s statement of he would rather stick his hand in an animals mouth rather than human beings is one of the most blatant examples of racism. But Momma cannot ignore the rules she learned as a child as to how to regard white people. Momma has contradictory traits in this novel, she is usually strong and defiant but when she is confronted with racism she is quiet and timid. Maya makes fantasy stories that Momma had yelled up to him and had fought for her rights. This indicates Maya’s frustration with Momma who is strong but is unwilling to stand up for herself.