I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 18-20
Chapter Eighteen begins with a description of the cotton workers after another hard day’s work. Maya thinks they are hateful ‘to have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen, and even more shameful to try to pretend that things were not as bad as they were’. Although these workers are exhausted, they say how they are going on to the Revival meeting later and Maya thinks ‘my people may be a race of masochists!’
The narrative switches to the revival tent that is set in a field near the railroad tracks. People are streaming towards it: teenagers enjoy the event as much as adults as they use the nights outside the tent to play at courting and everyone attends from all the different churches.
She describes the meeting and the congregation, we are told, is satisfied that ‘even if they were society’s pariahs, they were going to be angels in a white marble heaven ...’. Afterwards, she sees them as basking in ‘the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden’.
In Chapter Nineteen, the Store is crammed with people listening to the radio. They are listening to Joe Louis fight Carnera and when it looks like Joe is going down, she says her race is groaning and ‘our people [are] falling’. If he
loses, they are back in slavery ‘and beyond help’. He then comes off the ropes and fights back, and Carnera is knocked down. Everyone seems to be holding themselves whilst he is counted out. When the fight is over, the commentator tells how the referee is holding up the Brown Bomber’s hand and he is still the heavyweight champion of the world. It takes an hour before people begin leaving the Store and those who live too far away have made arrangements to stay in town: ‘It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.’
Maya is at the summer picnic fish fry by the pond in Chapter Twenty and everyone is there. She wants to bring a book, but Momma says no, and if she does not want to play with the other children she can help with the food.
She finds somewhere private to relieve herself and then sits alone in a smaller clearing. Louise Kendricks walks into her grove and is also escaping the ‘gay spirit’. She reminds Maya of Jane Eyre and suddenly thinks she looks just like Bailey. They spin around together and Louise goes on to become her first friend. They teach each other the Tut language and they laugh together. Maya describes the novelty of this experience: ‘After being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl.’
At school, Maya receives a love note from Tommy Valdon and presumes it is a joke. She then thinks he might have ‘evil dirty things’ in mind. She considers destroying it, but shows it to Louise first. She thinks Valentine is a hateful word and tells Louise that she will not, ‘not ever again’, but does not explain further. Together they tear up the love note. Two days later the teacher reads out Valentine cards and Maya has one from Tommy. It says how he saw her tear up his note, but he is sure she did not mean to hurt him. He also says she will be his Valentine whether she answers or not. This makes her feel relieved and decides to be extra nice to him. Unfortunately, she giggles whenever she sees him and he eventually stops including her in his glances.
Chapter Eighteen offers a critique of the organized religions that allow the poor and oppressed to believe they will find favor in the after life rather than the here and now. The impact of this appears to be that the awful present is accepted as though it is unchangeable.
There is also a child’s critical view of the downtrodden cotton workers as Maya questions the pretence that things are not as bad as they are. The subtext of this criticism is that these workers are not fighting against the system they are in thrall to. In earlier chapters, Maya undermines the stereotype of the happy cotton picker, but here she is relentless in her portrayal of passivity. This is her opinion at the time, and perhaps at the time of writing too, and does not allow for the overwhelming effect of poverty and how it turns humans into dependents.