I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Summary
Prologue, Chapters 1 - 2
The prologue begins with the first-person narrator and author, Maya (as a child), trying to recite a poem at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church: ‘What you looking at me for?I didn’t come to stay ...’ She describes how the truth of the statement (that she has not come to stay) is like a wadded-up handkerchief sopping wet in her fists.
She is wearing a lavender taffeta dress and when Momma was making it, Maya imagined she would look like a movie star and ‘like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world’. In the early morning sun of Easter, however, the dress is shown to be ‘a plain ugly cutdown from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway’. It is also ‘old-lady-long’, but does not hide her skinny legs. She imagines everyone’s surprise when she wakes out of her ‘black ugly dream’ and her real hair, ‘which was long and blonde’, would replace the ‘kinky mass’.
The narrative returns to the church and after being prompted she finishes the line and rushes to the toilet. She trips over a foot on the way out and begins to urinate. She then runs outside, ‘lets it go’ and runs home. She knows she will get ‘a whipping’ and the nasty children will have something else to tease her about, but she is pleased to be liberated from the church.
In Chapter One, it is explained how Maya and her brother Bailey arrived in this musty little town at the ages of three and four respectively in the early 1930s. They were wearing tags on their wrists, which were addressed ‘To Whom it May Concern’, explaining that they were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Junior from Long Beach, California en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs Annie Henderson. Their parents had ended their marriage and their father had sent them to his mother. Maya discovers years later that the United States has been crossed thousands of times by frightened African-American children. They were either travelling alone to their newly affluent parents in the North or back to their grandmothers in the Southern towns.
In Stamps, Maya and Bailey live with their grandmother and Uncle Willie at the back of the Store (rather than store). Their grandmother (whom they call Momma) has owned this for 25 years. She began doing business early in the twentieth century with a mobile lunch counter and went on to have the Store built ‘in the heart of the Negro area’. Over the years, ‘it became the lay center of activities in town’. It sells a variety of goods, such as food, shoestrings, balloons and seeds and anything that is not visible is ordered in.
The narrative shifts to explain that during the cotton picking season, Momma gets up at 4 am, says her prayers, calls their names and issues orders. The poverty of the cotton workers is explained as their wages would not even get them out of debt with Momma, ‘not to mention the staggering bill that awaited on them at the white commissary downtown’. In later years, Maya would challenge the stereotype of ‘gay song-singing cotton pickers’ with such rage that even fellow African-Americans would tell her that her paranoia was embarrassing.
Chapter Two begins with an explanation of how Maya and Bailey memorize their timetables. Their Uncle Willie, who had been crippled as a child, thrusts them close to the stove as a threat on their second mistake or third hesitation.
Momma tells them many times how Uncle Willie had been dropped at the age of three by a woman who was minding him, as though it is necessary to explain that he was not born that way. He has a ‘double-tiered barrier’ to face (because of his disability and race) and is also a proud and sensitive man.
The narrative shifts again to introduce Maya’s love of reading and how, in those years at Stamps, she falls in love with William Shakespeare. She pacifies herself about his whiteness by saying that he has been dead for so long it does not matter. She adds that she is also passionate about authors such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois. She and Bailey decide to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice,but they know Momma will question them about the author; they choose ‘The Creation’ by James Weldon Johnson instead.
In these early stages of this first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, the readers are introduced to her as a child in Stamps forgetting her lines in a poetry recital. She says there is truth for her in the lines of the poem …”she has not come to stay”…., and the readers go on to learn in the following chapters that as a young child she has little or no sense of belonging while growing up. She has been sent to live with her grandmother, along with her brother, Bailey, and although loved, it takes her the length of the book to begin to feel contentment.
As the Prologue unfolds, Maya reveals her self-loathing with the references to her ‘skinny legs’ and ‘kinky mass’. She hopes her new dress will make her look like one of the famous white child actresses and demonstrates again her dissatisfaction with her appearance and racial identity. It is as though she has internalized the racist views of African-Americans and believes in her designated inferior status.
These chapters also explain a little how Maya and her brother have come to live in Stamps and we are invited to see how Momma is a strong early influence in their lives. She runs her own business (the Store) in a time and place where African-American women were – and still are - firmly at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy.