“The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird
Sings of freedom.”
- From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)
THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.
In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.
The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas
“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate. (p. 49)
Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”
Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.
The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.
After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.
At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.
There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.
“It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)
In a way, it was a blessing that the Black community in Stamps was a tight-knit one. With segregation in Stamps being almost absolute, most of the children in their part of town lived in some form of a bubble.
“In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.” (p. 25)
What little interaction Maya had with the whitefolks during this period were with the powhite trash that lived in Momma’s land. And yet, even with the barest of interactions, those moments still filled young Maya with dread, frustration, and anger. One particular incident made its stamp in the writer’s consciousness. A group of young white women came to the store and proceeded to mock her grandmother. They danced around like puppets, made racist remarks, and one even did a knicker-less handstand. The entire time, Momma said nothing. She refused to react to the insults, opting instead, to stand her ground but remained polite throughout the spectacle.
As Maya watched from inside the house, angry tears slid down her cheeks. How dare they treat a great woman like Momma with such disrespect? Why was Momma not doing anything? But she later realized that through her silent display of strength and resilience, her grandmother was teaching Maya an important lesson. This was to stand your ground in the face of adversity and hardship. A lesson that Maya took to heart and practiced throughout her life.
Now, as distasteful as those moments were, they were rare occurrences. At least during the children’s early years. For the most part, their main concern was adjusting to their new life in Stamps. Bailey seemed to do fine, but Maya had difficulties coming out of shell. In her words:
“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.” (p.4)
The feelings of abandonment and displacement hounded Maya and Bailey. It was a pain they had to struggle with, privately and quietly. But just as they were adjusting to life in Arkansas, what little peace they acquired from under Momma’s care shattered with the arrival of presents from their parents.
“I couldn’t believe that our mother would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children…The gifts opened the door to questions that neither of us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away? And What did we do so wrong? So wrong? Why, at three and four, did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train alone from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us?” (p.52-53)
The presents were soon followed by their father’s arrival. He had come to take them away, off to St. Louis to live with their mother.
A Voice, Silenced.
Living with their mother was like a dream for Maya and Bailey. The bustling streets of St. Louis in the mid-1930s was vastly different from the sleepy town of Stamps. The place was a fount of new and exciting experiences. They met interesting characters and indulged in novel snacks like peanuts and jelly beans, thin-sliced ham, and sandwiches with lettuce in them.
(This was also where Maya earned her nickname. Bailey refused to call her Marguerite. Instead, opting to refer to her as “Mya Sister.” The name stuck.)
Now, like Momma, Grandmother Baxter was a respected figure in the community. She was a precinct captain, and many of their neighbors looked to her for help and advice. Their uncles were also regarded as some of the toughest men in town. As for their mother, Vivian Baxter, she was the most beautiful and clever woman Maya and Bailey had ever seen. Her intelligence, talent, and beauty attracted many admirers—including Mr. Freeman. So when Mr. Freeman asked their mother to move in with him, it was an unspoken agreement that he would provide for her children too.
“Mother was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions. Although she was a nurse, she never worked her profession while we were with her. Mr. Freeman brought in the necessities and she earned extra money cutting poker games in gambling parlors. The straight eight-to-five world simply didn’t have enough glamor for her, and it was twenty years later that I first saw her in a nurse’s uniform.”
Mr. Freeman worked as a foreman. He was a large and quiet man. From the start, Maya always felt a little sorry for him. He seemed to her, at first, to be a kind and harmless old man who only came alive at the presence of their mother. That’s why, when the abuse first started, Maya felt confused, frightened, and a bit guilty, as if she was the one who did something wrong.
As a child, Maya suffered from terrible nightmares. To help comfort her, her mother allowed Maya to sleep in her bed. One day, when her mother was out, Mr. Freeman started holding her. Being so young, Maya had no idea what was going on. Since nothing hurt, the whole thing didn’t strike her as inappropriate or bad. It was only when he made a threat that she realized she may be in trouble.
“Ritie, you love Bailey?” He sat down on the bed and I came close, hoping. “Yes.” He was bending down, pulling on his socks, and his back was so large and friendly I wanted to rest my head on it.
“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.” (p.74)
Maya didn’t understand this. What had they done? Why was Mr. Freeman claiming she had wet the bed when she didn’t? She was at a loss. Starved for affection and approval, she had wondered if she was the one at fault over something she didn’t understand. In this one, heartbreaking line, Maya Angelou sums up the confusion experienced by an abused child:
“I had made him ashamed of me.” (p.74)
The abuse soon escalated into rape. And poor Maya was forced into silence. She was afraid to tell her mother or Bailey what happened. What if they stopped loving her? She meant to keep her silence, but the secret came to light when Maya fell ill. The judge and jury sentenced Mr. Freeman to a year and a day, but it was time that was never served. Days after the trial, Mr. Freeman’s battered body was found behind a slaughterhouse.
A Return to Stamps: Finding Her Voice
Following Mr. Freeman’s death, Bailey and Maya moved back to Stamps. At this point, all the conflicting feelings of fear, dread, helplessness, and guilt had caused Maya to fall silent. A long time would go by before Maya would speak again.
In the end, it was the kind guidance of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, the genteel, “aristocrat of Black Stamps,” that helped Maya rediscover her voice, literally and literature-wise. Mrs. Flower’s would lend Maya books and ask her to recite her favorite poems. Beyond encouraging her to speak again, this period helped awaken Maya’s love for poetry and literature.
Life soon improved for the young girl. Maya began to make friends and did so well in class that she graduated eighth grade with top marks. But even during this period of triumph, a dark cloud loomed heavy over their community. Graduation was a big deal in Stamps and everyone was in the mood for a celebration. That is, until Mr. Edward Donleavy’s commencement speech.
Now, Mr. Donleavy was a white man from Texarcana. And as you can imagine, his speech wasn’t so much a congratulations as it was a painful reminder of the African-American youth’s place in society.
“The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.
Owens and the Brown Bomber were great heroes in our world, but what school official in the white-goddom of Little Rock had the right to decide that those two men must be our only heroes? Who decided that for Henry Reed to become a scientist he had to work like George Washington Carver, as a bootblack, to buy a lousy microscope? Bailey was obviously always going to be too small to be an athlete, so which concrete angel glued to what country seat had decided that if my brother wanted to become a lawyer he had to first pay penance for his skin by picking cotton and hoeing corn and studying correspondence books at night for twenty years?
…We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.” (p.180)
Beyond hearing these discouraging remarks, there was another incident that acted as a sordid reminder of the dangers of bigotry in the segregated South.
During an errand in the white part of town, Bailey witnessed a dead ‘colored’ man being fished out of a pond. The corpse was wrapped in a white sheet, already bloated and stinking with rot. A white man was overseeing the body’s removal. Upon seeing Bailey and other African-American men standing nearby, he ordered them to bring the corpse into the calaboose. There, he callously joked that he would lock Bailey and the others up as well.
This sadistic display of racism and cruelty frightened Momma enough to send Bailey and Maya back to their parents. Momma accompanied them to California. And from there, the children traveled north with their mother to live in San Francisco.
Starting anew in San Francisco
Living in San Francisco during World War II was a pivotal period for Maya. Under the tutelage of her George Washington High School teacher, Miss Kirwin, Maya found her passion for learning. While the night classes at the California Labor School awakened her fervor for drama and dance. At 14, Maya was blossoming into a driven and talented young woman.
That following summer, Daddy Bailey invited her to spend some time with him and his girlfriend in southern California. She accepted with enthusiasm. But what had been a promising vacation became a period of disappointment and reevaluation for Maya. Turns out, her big, strong, handsome and charming father was also very irresponsible. After getting stabbed by her father’s girlfriend, Maya decided to run away and hide out until it was time for her to come home. She didn’t want her mother finding out about the incident with her father’s girlfriend. So for an entire month, she lived in a junkyard with a group of other runaways. It was an experience that changed her, infusing her with wisdom and self-reliance. It is with this same confidence that Maya, upon returning to San Francisco, decided to go to work.
She wanted to a job on the streetcars, which wouldn’t be so unusual except during those days, the Market Street Railway Company wasn’t employing ‘colored’ people. This, of course, didn’t stop Maya. With her mother’s encouragement, she persisted until she won the job and the respect of the people she worked with. It is this same resilience, this quiet strength and ‘never give up’ attitude that would see Angelou overcoming and triumphing over the many challenges she would face in adulthood.
Final Thoughts on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Its Enduring Impact
I’ve always felt that the best and most impactful books are the hardest ones to review. The fact that it took me almost two months to write this lengthy piece should tell you how special this book is. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a very well-written memoir. Though, really, isn’t that part expected? Maya Angelou is, after all, regarded as one of the most talented storytellers in history. But in this humble reader’s opinion, what makes this memoir extra special is Angelou’s treatment of her experiences.
Written in simple verse, this memoir is highly readable—but it is not necessarily an easy read. Angelou doesn’t just tell you her story, she ropes you in for the entire ride. I remember reading an interview of hers where she said that to write this autobiography, she had to do so in isolation and with the aid of alcohol. These were painful days to remember; days she had to relive to immortalize in print. And reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you do feel it. As you read about the ups and downs of Angelou’s youth, you also feel the joy, anguish, horror, and helplessness that she felt as a child.
It is a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir and an enlightening read. Because beyond giving us her story, Maya Angelou also gifts us with a potent history lesson. Through telling us about her childhood, she presents us with the harsh reality of how it was like to live as Black child during the time of segregation. She gives voice to the struggles of an entire group of people—a group judged, punished, and discriminated against because of the color of their skin. It is a painful reminder that despite how far the African-American community has come in terms of overcoming hundreds of years of oppression, their fight for equality is one that continues today.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a slim volume that holds in its pages both tremendous weight and unsinkable hope. It is a book that has the power to move its readers, down to the very marrow of their bones.
Grade: A+ (A must-read!)