Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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At the age of three, Maya and her brother Bailey, who is four, are

shipped off to live with their paternal grandmother, Momma

Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas, for their parents are getting a

divorce. Momma Henderson lives with Uncle Willie in the rear of

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the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, an establishment

which serves cotton pickers and sawmen. The store serves as the

center of activity in the town.

Maya and Bailey are expected to work in the store. They must get

up at dawn to wait on customers who stop on their way to work.

Many of the customers will return to the store in the evening after

their work is done. For Maya and Bailey, the store is their whole

life. It is also their teacher, for they learn some valuable lessons

from their encounters and interactions with different people.Two years later Maya and Bailey are studying at the Lafayette

County Training School and work hard on their studies. They are

also made to behave at home, being disciplined by Uncle Willie,

who usually sits like a giant black Z. Willie’s face is always

pulled down on one side from paralysis that has affected him

since the age of three.

One day Maya observes Uncle Willie in the presence of two

schoolteachers from Little Rock who do not know him; she

realizes he is pretending not to be crippled. When Willie notices

Maya, he sends her outside to play. She realizes that Uncle Willie

may be tired of his disabled life.

Maya has developed a love of literature, having discovered

Shakespeare, Kipling, Poe, Butler, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du

Bois, and other writers. She and Bailey decide to memorize a

passage from The Merchant of Venice but change their minds

because Momma will know that Shakespeare is white. Instead,

they choose to learn The Creation by James Weldon JohnsonMaya’s days are full. She and Bailey must feed corn to the

chickens and mash to the hogs. Maya must also work in the store;

but she does not mind the routine chores that she performs there

during the day. In fact, she feels totally connected to the store and

comfortable with the customers, who often praise her. It is her

favorite place in Arkansas. In the evening, Maya and the family

often rest, while eating canned sardines and crackers. Because

Willie enjoys this time of the day, he does not stutter or shake.

Maya describes her passion for canned pineapples, but she never

takes a can for herself from the store. She would consider that

stealing, to which she is opposed. She also describes a time when

the used-to-be Sheriff came to the house. He told them that

Willie had better hide because a nigger messed with a white

lady, and the boys would be coming over later. Uncle Willie hid

in the vegetable bin to protect himself from the boys in the Ku

Klux Klan. Maya describes him like a casserole, covered with

onions and potatoes. Seeking God’s protection for Willie and the

family, Momma prayed in the darkened store. The young Maya is fascinated by a man named Mr. McElroy, the

only Negro in Stamps to wear a suit, except for the school

principal. All of the other blacks in town are too poor to own one.

Maya is also fascinated by her brother Bailey, whom she believes

to be the greatest person in her world, in spite of his stealing

pickles. Calling him her kingdom come, Maya is proud of him

for being so good, for praying aloud in church, and for doing

more chores than she does. She also thinks that Bailey is

extremely handsome, in contrast to her own unattractiveness, and

very smart.

Stamps is so well segregated that many black children have never

seen a white person. The black people think of the whites with

fear, which comes from 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. Maya talks about

whitefolks-ville, the segregated portion of town where she and

Bailey trespass occasionally to buy fresh meat. She thinks of the

crossing over into the white area as walking without weapons

into man-eating animals’ territory.Cleanliness and respect are two commandments that Momma

instills in Maya and Bailey. As a result, the children are careful

about their appearance and speak politely to their elders, saying

please, thank you, ma’am, and sir. They are much better behaved

than the powhitetrash children, who live on the land behind the

school. These children are not clean or respectful. They come to

the store and act bossy and rude, calling Momma and Uncle

Willie by their first names.

When Maya is ten, an incident occurs that proves to be very

painful. After sweeping in front of the store, Maya and Momma

stop and admire their work. A group of powhitetrash girls come

up, make fun of Momma, and create a mess in the area that has

just been cleaned. Momma tells Maya to go inside the store. From

inside, Maya sees the girls continuing to tease and mock her

grandmother. Momma does not let the rudeness of the girls bother

her. She stands in front of the girls full of dignity, singing hymns

and calling them Miz Ruth, Miz Helen, and Miz Eloise.

Maya watches as one of the girls does a handstand. When her

dress comes down over her shoulders, Maya is shocked to see that

the girl is wearing no underwear. By the time the girls leave and

Momma comes inside the store, Maya is so upset that she is

crying. As Momma comforts her, Maya sees that her

grandmother’s face is shining with beauty and pride. She has

refused to feel shamed by the behavior of the girls. Mama knows

that Momma has won a silent victory.

Maya goes outside and erases the footprints that the girls have

made. She then makes a drawing on the ground. She shapes a

large heart with lots of smaller hearts growing inside.Every three months, Reverend Howard Thomas, the presiding

elder of the black church, visits Stamps and stays at the

Henderson house. When he arrives, normally after dinner on

Saturday evening, he eats the leftovers and gossips with Momma

and Willie. Maya and Bailey dislike him because he is ugly and

fat, laughs like a hog with colic, and never remembers their


Bailey eavesdrops on what the minister is saying to Momma and

Willie. He then repeats the news to Maya. He tells her about Mr.

Coley Washington, who has a girl staying with him and who is

probably doing it to her. He also tells Maya about a man whose

things had been cut off for doing it to a white woman.

On Sunday morning Maya and Bailey are given heavy breakfasts,

including fried fish, biscuits, and tomato slices; Momma wants to

fill them up so that they will stay quiet in church. Momma asks

the Reverend to say grace before they eat; he takes so much time

to bless the food that it gets cold.

In church, Reverend Thomas preaches a long sermon from

Deuteronomy, Maya’s favorite book in the Bible. During the

service, Maya notices Sister Monroe and remembers how she

once became hysterical in her religious fervor, shouting preach

it so loudly that the entire church was thrown into pandemonium.

The mischievous Bailey also sees Sister Monroe. He goes up to

her and whispers preach it in her ear as a joke. Sister Monroe

grows excited at the words and runs to the pulpit. Reverend

Thomas, having heard of Sister Monroe’s hysterics, backs away

from her, but she grabs him with excitement. The Reverend tries

to ignore her and continue preaching, but somehow he has lost his

dentures in the encounter with Sister Monroe. Maya and Bailey

burst into laughter, in spite of trying hard not to. Both children,

after being duly punished for their outbursts, try to be on their best

behavior in front of Momma; but for weeks, when they are alone,

they break into hysterics when one of the utters the phrase,

Preach it. Momma has had three husbands Mr. Johnson, who is the

children’s grandfather; Mr. Henderson; and Mr. Murphy. When

Mr. Murphy passes through Stamps, he will usually come and

stay with Momma. She, however, does not really trust him. She

has Willie watch him closely to make certain that he does not

steal anything from the store.

Momma strives to teach Bailey and Maya practical advice about

living. She teaches them to be proud of who they are and the color

of their skin. She also warns the children that whites should be

spoken to with respect, if spoken to at all.

Many years before, an incident happened in Stamps that is still

talked about. A black man, who was being hunted down for

assaulting a white woman, takes shelter in Momma’s store. When

he is apprehended and taken to court, he tells the judge about

taking refuge at Mrs. Henderson’s store. Momma is subpoenaed.

When she arrives in court, she introduces herself as Mrs.

Henderson. The judge, bailiff, and the audience laugh at her,

amazed that a black woman would call herself Mrs. Amazingly,

however, the white people in Stamps still refer to Momma as Mrs.

Henderson. She is the only black woman called Mrs. by them

This chapter begins with a harsh criticism of the whites in Stamps.

The blacks, who are poor and have little, judge the white people

to be wealthy and decadent, with their fancy cars and glistening

white houses. They are also very prejudiced. They will not even

allow black people to buy vanilla ice cream except on the Fourth

of July. The rest of the year, the blacks in Stamps must be content

with chocolate ice cream.

Although Maya believes that God is white, she does not think he

is prejudiced. She also believes that Momma has more money

than the powhitetrash, and Momma is much wiser about life and

finances. In order to save money, she makes all the clothes that

Maya and Bailey wear. In the summer, the children are expected

to go barefoot, and their shoes are resoled when they are worn.

Momma also encourages the children not to waste or want.

The depression, which hits the white section of Stamps with

cyclonic impact, seeps very slowly into the black area of town.

The blacks are not even aware of it for two years. When the

owners of the cotton fields, where the blacks work, reduce the

payment for a pound of cotton from ten cents to seven and then

five cents, the blacks begin to struggle. There is not enough

money to buy food for themselves, and they certainly cannot

afford the feed for their hogs and cows. In order to eat, most of

the blacks have to go on government relief and accept handouts

from welfare agencies.

Maya’s family is one of the few black families in Stamps that

does not depend on the government to exist. Momma manages to

keep her business going by devising a trade agreement. She

barters the goods in the store for food. As a result, Maya and

Bailey never go hungry; however, they must drink powdered milk

and eat powdered eggs received in trade. After several years, the

Depression begins to leave Stamps as slowly as it arrived. It is not

until the start of World War II that there is any significant change

in the economy.

Maya never hears from her parents; she thinks they must both be

dead. Then one Christmas she and Bailey receive Christmas

presents from them, sent from California.

Learning that her parents are alive upsets Maya. She believes she

must have done some terribly wrong to be sent away from them.

She is so upset that she must take out her frustration. She tears up

the white doll with blue eyes that she has received as their gift;

but she keeps the tea set, hoping to someday show it to her

mother. She again has hope that her mother will come and get her

in the future. A year after receiving the Christmas gifts, Maya’s eight-year-old

world is turned upside down, for her father comes to Stamps. He

is bigger and more handsome than she ever imagined. He also has

a good sense of humor. Maya is so proud of him that she wants to

show him off to everyone. She has the opportunity. For weeks

after his arrival, the store is full of people who went to school

with him or have heard about him. When they pay him attention,

Maya’s father struts around for their benefit.

Father Bailey announces that he will be leaving and taking the

children with him. Uncle Willie, who has suffered long enough

under his brother’s shadow, is happy at the news. Bailey is also

excited, for he wants to go to California with his father. Maya is

less sure about her change in life. Although Momma is sad to be

losing her grandchildren, she makes them some clothes and

reminds the children that they must be good.

The day finally arrives for the three of them to depart. The trip is

long and monotonous. Maya does not feel very comfortable, but

Bailey fits right in with his father. As they near St. Louis, their

father surprises them with the news that they are about to meet

their mother. This unexpected turn of events frightens Maya, and

she says that she wants to return to Stamps. In reality, she is afraid

of being rejected by her mother, Vivian. In her nervousness, Maya

asks Bailey in Pig Latin if he is sure that this is really their father.

Although Bailey ignores the question, Father Bailey responds.

Maya is shocked to learn that Pig Latin is not Bailey’s made-up


Upon seeing her mother, Maya immediately judges her to be

gorgeous, and Bailey seems to instantly fall in love with her.

Maya reasons that her mother’s beauty is the cause of her giving

up Bailey and herself; she was too beautiful to have children.

Maya then sees that Bailey resembles their mother, which makes

Maya feel disconnected.

Father Bailey soon departs, leaving Maya and Bailey in St. Louis

with their mother. Maya thinks that she has been left with a

stranger. Maya and Bailey live with their maternal grandparents for about

six months before they move in with their mother. They are given

plenty to eat, have their own room, and wear store bought clothes.

Before long, Maya’s fears about being in St. Louis vanish and are

replaced by the fear that she will be sent back to Stamps, away

from her mother. She tries to be on her best behavior so she will

not irritate anyone, especially not Vivian.

Grandmother Baxter is a quadroon, which means she is of mixed

race but largely white. Raised by a German family in Cairo,

Illinois, she came to St. Louis to study nursing. While working at

the hospital, she met and married Grandfather Baxter. The two of

them are opposites. Grandmother Baxter is extremely light

skinned and speaks with a throaty German accent; Grandfather

Baxter is very dark skinned and has the choppy speech associated

with West Indians. Both of them are devoted to the family, which

includes their six children and their dog.

Grandmother Baxter is an important figure in the community. She

is a precinct captain and has pull with the police department.

The local numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers, and whiskey

salesmen all come to her for favors. She usually manages to have

bails reduced and to take the heat off gambling parlors. In return,

she expects those that she has helped to bring in votes during the


Maya and Bailey are shocked at the life they see in St. Louis,

which is completely different than Stamps. They witness drinking,

gambling, and all manner of Biblical violations, which are

practiced so freely it is hard for Maya and Bailey to believe they

are watching illegal activities. Maya and Bailey also learn about

some of the finer things in life. They are given all kinds of treats

to eat, like thin-sliced ham and jellybeans. They are sent to a real

school, where they are amazed at its vastness and the formality of

its teachers. In their primness, Maya thinks the teachers are

talking down to her and the other students.

Since both Maya and Bailey read well and are very good at

arithmetic, they are moved up one grade. Acting like his father,

Bailey shows off his intelligence and makes the other children

feel inferior. He and Maya both lose the habit of saying Yes

ma’am and No ma’am to their elders and learn to say Yes

and No instead.

Vivian, whom they call Mother Dear, is a free-spirited woman.

Maya and Bailey sometimes find her at Touie’s, a tavern owned

by two Syrian brothers. The children are allowed into the tavern

and are given soft drinks and boiled shrimp. They learn to dance

and are known as Bibbie’s darling babies.

Vivian’s brothers, Tom, Tutti, and Ira, are also well-known

around town. Maya remarks that Grandfather Baxter raised the

boys to know that if they were ever arrested for stealing, he would

let them rot in jail; however, if they were ever jailed for fighting,

he would sell everything he owned to get them out. Brought up

with this kind of encouragement, the brothers have become

fearsome characters; only the youngest, Billy, has not joined them

in their misadventures

Maya loves her uncles and is thrilled by their meanness. Her

favorite is Uncle Tommy, who often tells Maya that even though

she is not pretty, she is very smart, which is preferable to beauty.

Although he can be gruff, Tommy chews his words so that even

his ordinary sentences sound like poetry. He is also a natural


Maya feels the binding quality of Baxter blood. The closeness

comes naturally without being taught. Bailey, at the age of three,

was displeased at Maya’s inability to walk and took it upon

himself to teach her. He announced, This is my sister. I have to

teach her to walk. Bailey was also the one who gave her the

nickname of Maya. He refused to call her Marguerite; instead he

named her My a Sister, which later became Maya.

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