I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 27-29
In the early months of World War II, in Chapter Twenty Seven, the Fillmore district of San Francisco experiences a ‘visible revolution’. Japanese shops are taken over by African-American businessmen and the Asian population dwindles. The area becomes San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months. Little sympathy is shown for those who are dislodged and Maya offers the view that this is because the experience of being appreciated (in shipyards and ammunition plants) is a new one for African-Americans. Furthermore, the Japanese people are not white and, therefore, are not feared. Maya feels a sense of belonging for the first time as it is a period of flux and the fear of being bombed prevails in the neighborhood.
In Chapter Twenty Eight, Maya is unable to settle at high school even though her grades are extremely good. Many of the African-American girls are also straight from the South, but they are ‘faster, brasher, meaner and more prejudiced’ than any she met at school in Stamps. Fortunately, she is transferred to George Washington High School, which is some 60 blocks away. However, she is only one of three black students there and comes to love ‘her people’ more as she has to leave her district to get there.
She is disappointed not to be the most brilliant or even nearly the most brilliant student, but Miss Kirwin (the civics and current events teacher) comes to have a strong influence on her.
At the ages of 14 and 15, Maya is given a scholarship to the California Labor School (although she does not know why). It is a college for adults and she discovers years later that it was on the House of Un-American Activities list of subversive organizations. She also chooses to study dance and drama in the evenings and is separated from her love of melodrama when she is made to do six months of pantomime.
Her home life is described in Chapter Twenty Nine. Their house has 14 rooms and is referred to as a typical San Franciscan ‘post-Earthquake affair’; they have a succession of roomers staying there.
She is drawn to Daddy Clidell, who teaches her to play cards and is told (unexpectedly) that she resembles him. He introduces her to men who he says are the most successful con artists in the world and they tell her about some of their tricks so that she will never be ‘anybody’s mark’. Their stories are invariably about tricks played against wealthy bigoted whites (and how they use their prejudices against them). Maya notes how ‘the needs of a society determine its ethics’ and how such men become heroes in ‘Black American ghettos’ as they refuse to accept just the crumbs from the table.
In this new home in San Francisco, Maya experiences living in a community where she feels as though she belongs. She avoids idealizing her environment, as she points out how the ‘dislodged’ Japanese are not given a second thought, but does reveal a growing sense of self-assurance and happiness. The influence of Daddy Clidell is hinted at being a part of this, as is the thriving African-American neighborhood that has arisen during World War II.
When she looks at how the ethics of a society are determined by its needs, in Chapter Twenty Nine, she makes a telling point about the relativity of the fear of crime and how it is perceived. As she argues, these conmen she meets are regarded as heroes, and this is because they refuse to accept the crumbs from the table (or the racist ideology that oppresses African-Americans) with passivity.