I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 15-17
We are told in Chapter Fifteen that Maya stays around the house, the Store, the school and church ‘like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible’ for nearly a year. She then becomes acquainted with Mrs. Bertha Flowers, though, and she throws Maya her first lifeline. Mrs. Flowers is regarded by Maya as one of the few gentlewomen she has ever known and makes her ‘proud to be Negro, just by being herself’.
One summer afternoon, Momma tells Mrs. Flowers that Bailey will bring her provisions to her home. Mrs. Flowers says she would prefer Marguerite to bring them as she has been meaning to talk to her anyway. The adults exchange looks and Maya is sent to change her clothes.
As she and Mrs. Flowers walk to her house, she tells Maya that nobody can make her talk, ‘but bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.’ She says she will give Maya some books on the condition that she reads them aloud. At her home, they have cookies and lemonade and Mrs. Flowers tells her that she has made the cookies expressly for her. As she eats, Mrs. Flowers begins the first of what they later call ‘my lessons in living’. She is told to be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy. Mrs. Flowers then reads from A Tale of Two Cities and although Maya has read it before, when she listens to her voice she feels like this is the first time she has heard poetry. Afterwards, Mrs. Flowers asks her opinion and Maya has to answer. The least and most she is able to say is ‘yes, ma’am’. She is then given a book of poems and is told to memorize one; she has to recite it the next time she visits. When Maya leaves, she runs most of the way home and feels she is liked for just being herself, and it makes a difference.
At home, she says ‘by the way’ to Bailey when telling him she has brought him some cookies. Momma overhears and gets a switch to hit her. She makes them pray (as she sees this term as a form of cursing) and by the time she has finished all three are crying and hits Maya only a few times. Later that evening Momma explains that ‘by the way’ is really saying ‘by Jesus’ or ‘by God’ and will not have the Lord’s name taken in vain.
Chapter Sixteen begins with details of how well African-American girls are prepared for adulthood in small Southern towns at this time. They are required to embroider and she has ‘trunkfuls’ of pillowcases, dish towels and handkerchiefs. All girls can also iron and wash and during her 10th year, ‘a white woman’s kitchen’ becomes her finishing school (at the home of Mrs. Viola Cullinan). The cook, Miss Glory, is a descendant of the slaves that worked for this family in Virginia and she will not let Maya say a word against her mistress.
Maya tells Bailey about her employer and the house and informs him that she has heard she cannot have children. He lets her know in return that Mr. Cullinan has two daughters (the Coleman girls) ‘by a colored lady’ and Maya feels pity for his wife then.
One evening, she serves Mrs. Cullinan and her friends on the porch. She does not answer when one of them asks her name and Mrs. Cullinan explains that she does not talk much, and her name is Margaret. One of the guests says this is too long and she would call her Mary. Maya goes back to the kitchen fuming with anger. She hears their giggles and wonders if they are talking about her. She moves on to worry that Mrs. Cullinan might have friends in St Louis who have told her about the court case. She vomits and is sent home, but on the way she realizes she is being foolish and feels pity for her boss again.
However, the next day she calls Maya ‘Mary’ and Maya describes how everyone she knows has ‘a hellish horror’ of being ‘called out of his name’. Miss Glory tries to comfort her a little and tells her not to pay any attention to it. Her name used to be Hallelujah until Mrs. Cullinan re-named her Glory, 20 years ago. Anger stops Maya from laughing or crying and decides she must quit. She thinks she needs a good reason as Momma will not her just walk out and Bailey advises her to smash some of her employer’s favorite dishes. This is successful as when Maya does as he suggests, Mrs. Cullinan becomes hysterical and throws a broken piece at her (and this hits Miss Glory instead).
In Chapter Seventeen, weekdays in Stamps are described as revolving ‘on a sameness wheel’, but Saturdays break the mold as the farmers and their families come into town. Since their return from St. Louis, Maya and Bailey are also given a 10 cent a week allowance. Bailey usually goes to the movies and with her money he brings her back Street and Smith cowboy books.
On one Saturday, Bailey still has not come home when it is almost dark. Momma is trying not to worry, but this is difficult and we are told it is as though she has ‘her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose’. Maya and Momma walk out onto the road to see if they can see him and, even though he is now 11 and smart, Maya remembers he is also small. They see him finally walking towards them ‘like a man trudging up the hill behind a coffin’ and he offers no reason for his lateness. When Uncle Willie whips him with the belt, he still makes no sound and for days he does not talk, smile or apologize. One evening, he tells Maya that he has seen Mother Dear. He explains that this was at the movies and it was not really her, but a white actress called Kay Francis who looks just like her. She understands that he did not tell Momma and Uncle Willie as they do not have enough of Mother to share.
Almost two months later a Kay Francis film comes to Stamps and they both go to see it. The whitefolks downstairs at the cinema laugh at the African-American maid and chauffeur and throw the ‘discarded snicker up to the Negroes in the buzzards’ roost’. Maya thinks it is funny that the woman the whitefolks adore could be her mother’s twin (except Mother is prettier). Bailey is cast down afterwards and at a railway lane he tears across the track before the night train comes. He does not jump on then (to find Mother), but does so a year later and is stranded in Louisiana for two weeks.
The theme of racism continues to be investigated as Maya describes her stint working for Mrs. Cullinan and her experience at the cinema in the ‘buzzards’ roost’. In both cases, her perspective describes and criticizes the presumptions of whitefolks who presume to be superior by virtue of the color of their skin. Mrs. Cullinan’s decision to rename her Mary (rather than the already incorrect Margaret) is indicative of an abuse of power. The power of giving a name is a form of control that has biblical dimensions, as with the correlation with Adam, and is paternalistic to say the least. By renaming Maya, her employer attempts to put her stamp on her. By refusing to accept this (at the age of 10), Maya represents the possibility of rebelling against oppression.