I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 21-23
The narrative focuses on Bailey in Chapter Twenty One and it is related how he makes a tent with a blanket for his Captain Marvel hideaway. Here, he initiates girls into the mysteries of sex and tells them he is going to play momma and poppa. He lies on top of them (in the tent) and wiggles his hips. She is given the role of baby and lookout and has to warn them if an adult is approaching.
He plays this game for about six months before he meets Joyce when he is not quite 11 and she is four years older. Her parents are dead and she and her brothers and sisters have been parcelled out to relatives. She lives with a widowed aunt who is poorer than the poorest person in town.
Whilst keeping guard outside the tent, Maya worries that Bailey will have to go to hospital if lets her ‘do that to him’ (have sex properly). Joyce tells her to ‘go git’ and the love affair progresses as his stealing from the Store increases. Maya sees that Joyce is Bailey’s first love outside the family and she is around for a few months. When she disappears, Bailey loses interest in everything. Maya learns (by eavesdropping on Momma and Joyce’s aunt) that Joyce has run off with a railroad porter.
In Chapter Twenty Two, a storm is approaching and Maya thinks it is a perfect time to re-read Jane Eyre. She closes the Store early and later they hear Mr. George Taylor knock at the door. Momma invites him in and they stretch the food to include him. He has been having meals all over town since his wife, Florida, died in the summer. They were together for 40 years and Momma says it is a pity they did not have children. This triggers him to tell them that this is what Florida had said last night. Maya finds the idea of a ‘real’ ghost story intolerable and walks over to the window.
She remembers Mrs. Taylor’s funeral as she had to go on account of being left a brooch by her. They all had to file past the open coffin and for the first time the burial ceremony had meaning for her.
The narrative returns to Mr. Taylor and how he saw a baby angel and heard his wife say she wants some children. Eventually, Momma manages to encourage him to take in one of the Jenkins boys to help him on the farm.
Chapter Twenty Three is concerned with graduation time and how excited the children become. This is despite the Lafayette County Training School distinguishing itself from the white high school ‘by having neither lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy’. In addition, only a small percentage of those graduating would be continuing on to college (to one of the South’s agricultural and mechanical schools).
In the Store, Maya is the ‘person of the moment’ as Bailey graduated from grammar school the year before. She is now 12 and is graduating from the eighth grade; her academic work is among the best of the year. The weeks before graduation are busy with activity; for example, a group of small children are in a play and older girls are preparing refreshments. In her community, it is a tradition to give gifts to children going from one grade to another. She is to receive a Mickey Mouse watch from Uncle Willie and Momma and customers give her nickels and even dimes. Bailey gives her a collection of Edgar Allan Poe poems.
At the school ceremony, she has the presentiment that something is going to happen that will make the students look ‘bad’. The principal explains that their speaker tonight is going to have to ‘speak and run’ because of the train schedule. He introduces Mr. Edward Donleavy and two white men walk on to the stage. The shorter one goes to the dais and the other sits in the principal’s chair. The principal bounces around until the Baptist minister gives his up and walks off the stage with dignity. Donleavy looks at the audience once and then reads from his papers. He says it is good to be there and to see that work is ‘going on just as it was in the other schools’. He tells them about the improvements made at the Central School (which is for whites), and praises Maya’s school because the best basketball players at Fisk have come from there.
Maya sees that white children are encouraged to become scientists, philosophers and artists whereas African-American boys (the girls are not referred to) are encouraged to be sportsmen. She thinks Donleavy’s ‘dead words’ fall like bricks around the auditorium and too many settle in her belly. The proud graduating class of 1940 begin to drop their heads and graduation is finished for her before her name is called out. She feels that all the preparation has been for nothing as ‘Donleavy had exposed us’.
After the speech, the men leave with the attitude that now they are going to something really important. Henry Reed then gives his valedictory address, ‘To Be or Not to Be’, and she thinks, ‘we couldn’t be, so the question was a waste of time’. Henry then does something unplanned: he turns his back on the audience to turn towards his class and sings. It is the poem written by James Weldon Johnson and is the ‘Negro national anthem’. Out of habit they join in and the mothers and fathers stand and also join the hymn of encouragement. After they finish, Maya feels ‘we were on top again’. She is not simply a member of the proud graduating class, she is also ‘a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race’. The chapter ends with the following point: ‘If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness.’
The build up to the excitement for the graduation is elaborated on in Chapter Twenty Three in order to emphasize the pride in achievement in Maya’s community. The appearance of Donleavy (and the second white man who did not even introduce himself) undermines this pride and the self-belief that has been fostered in the school despite the lack of resources and unequal segregation. When she and her class bow their heads as Donleavy exposes their lack of hope in this racist society (and condones it), she comes to resemble the cotton pickers that she criticized earlier in Chapter Eighteen. It is only with Henry Reed’s encouragement and the united voice of the class and audience that the spirits lift and pride returns once more. It is also telling that Henry switches from Shakespeare to Weldon Johnson to find the necessary tool to counteract the incipient racism of Donleavy and this returns us to Chapter Two when Maya knows Momma will disapprove of the whiteness of Shakespeare and also turns to Weldon Johnson instead.