I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 24-26
Chapter Twenty Four is concerned with Maya’s toothache and we are told there is not enough enamel left on the offending two teeth for Momma to tie string around and yank them out. There are no African-American dentists or doctors in Stamps – the nearest one is 25 miles away - so Momma says she will take her to (white) Dr. Lincoln in town as he owes her a favor.
They arrive at his premises and Momma knocks on the back door. She tells the young white girl who answers that she is Annie and asks her to let Doctor Lincoln know she is there. Maya finds it humiliating that she has to use her first name and the girl then closes the door and they have to wait outside for over an hour. The dentist comes out finally and asks ‘Annie’ what he can do for her. When she explains about Maya’s rotten teeth, he says ‘Annie, you know I don’t treat nigra, colored people’. She reminds him he owes her a favor or two and he replies, ‘Favor or no favor. The money has all been repaid to you and that’s the end of it. Sorry, Annie.’ Momma continues to try and persuade him and reminds him that he did not have to beg to borrow money from her, and he stood to lose his building at the time. He says his policy is that he would ‘rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s’ and goes back inside. Momma tells Maya to wait downstairs for her and Maya imagines Momma seeking revenge for what he has just said.
When she returns, she looks tired and tells Maya she is taking her to the dentist in Texarkana. The trip there is uneventful except Momma puts her arm around (which is unusual). When they come back home, she hears Momma’s version of what happened with the white dentist. In his office, he repeated that he would not put his hand in ‘no niggah’s mouth’ and she said she couldn’t afford to take Maya to Texarkana. He argued that he paid her all the money he owed, but she said he paid everything but the interest and will accept 10 dollars as payment in full (even though, as she tells Uncle Willie, he was paid up before by rights) and he agrees finally.
In Chapter Twenty Five, Momma is described as having ‘African bush secretiveness and suspiciousness’ that has been ‘compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken’. She tells the truth, but does not always answer the question. One day, she tells Maya and Bailey that she is taking them to California as they are growing up and need their parents. She says how Uncle Willie is crippled and she is getting old. This is all true, ‘but none of these truths satisfied our need for The Truth’.
Whatever the real reason is, Maya thinks they are leaving primarily because of an incident in which Bailey (who is now 13) had a leading part. A few weeks before Momma reveals her plan to take them West, Bailey comes home shaking. He has been to ‘whitefolks’ town’ on an errand and after the horror wears off a little he explains that he has seen a dead ‘colored’ man who had turned rotten. He saw the man being fished out of the pond and the African-American men backed away, but a white man stood there, looking down and grinning. Bailey asks repeatedly why ‘they’ hate us so much and carries on explaining that he was called upon to help carry the sheet that was holding the dead man. They had to take the man to the calaboose and the prisoners screamed that they did not want another ‘nigger’ there, ‘and a dead one at that’. They then laughed and Bailey is talking so fast as he recounts the incident that he forgets to stutter. He is ‘away in a mystery’ that young Southern black boys ‘start to try to unravel from seven to death’; this is the ‘humorless puzzle of inequality and hate’.
The narrative changes to describe the forthcoming travel arrangements again. Mother is now living in San Francisco, but must think it is wiser for Maya to go to Los Angeles initially (where her father is). Momma can only afford to take Maya first and Bailey is to follow a month later.
In Chapter Twenty Six, Maya does not think about seeing Mother until the last day of their journey and then the old guilt (about Mr. Freeman) returns ‘like a much-missed friend’. Mother greets them at the station and nuzzles around Momma like a chick around a ‘solid dark hen’. They stay in an apartment and Mother remains for long enough to get them settled. Bailey comes a month later and he, Maya and Momma live in Los Angeles for about six months while their permanent living arrangements are concluded. Maya marvels at Momma’s adaptability at this point as she has rarely travelled away from Stamps.
Daddy Bailey visits occasionally with shopping bags of fruit and eventually Momma returns to Arkansas. Mother drives Maya and Bailey towards San Francisco and they are both enraptured by her but are also aware that she is nervous. They move in to the home in Oakland and Mother explains that she earns her money playing pinochle or running a poker game. She says she will not be anyone’s ‘kitchen bitch’.
For all her jollity with them, she also has no mercy. Maya gives the example of how, before they arrived from Stamps, Mother’s business partner called her a bitch. The second time he said it she shot him and shot him again when he came towards her. He lived through it, though, and they retained admiration for each other.
This chapter finishes at the time of the United States’ entry into World War II and how, soon after, Mother marries Daddy Clidell. He turns out to be the first father that Maya would know. He is a successful businessman and moves Maya, Bailey and Mother to San Francisco.
In Chapter Twenty Four, the impact of segregation and racist ideology in Stamps is referred to in relation to what should be a simple trip to the dentist. Dr Lincoln’s espoused policy (that he will not put his hand in a ‘nigger’s’ mouth) epitomizes the irrational yet deeply-seated racism of their environment. His hypocrisy is all the more difficult to comprehend when we are told that his business had been saved by the loan he took from Momma.
The injustices of the town are also thought to be behind the reason for Momma taking Bailey and Maya to California. It is never explained in these terms, but it tallies with the time period, which comes shortly after Bailey witnesses the hatred of the whites towards African-Americans once more.