I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 3-5

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In Chapter Three, details of working in the Store are given and Maya relates how much she loves chocolate drops, her brother and pineapples. These pineapples are in their cans all year, though, and they only get to eat them at Christmas. A hint to future events is then given as she explains how, until the age of 13 when she leaves Arkansas for good, the Store is her favorite place to be. She compares it to an unopened present when it is empty in the mornings. At supper times, Momma opens crackers, Maya slices onion and Bailey opens two or even three cans of sardines. This is a relaxing time and Uncle Willie does not stutter or shake as he does earlier in the day with customers.
The children’s chores include feeding the chickens and hogs and late one day whilst they are attending to the hogs, Mr Steward (the ‘used-to-be sheriff’) rides into the front yard. They hear him tell Momma that Willie had ‘better lay low tonight’ because ‘a crazy nigger messed with a white lady today’ and some of ‘the boys will be coming over later’. Fear fills Maya’s mouth and she remembers the sensation years later.
To herself, she questions the term ‘boys’ and describes these men as having ‘cement faces and eyes of hate’ and thinks that ‘youth had never happened to them’. She also questions this warning being seen as a kindness and considers the effect of the news as ‘too humiliating to hear’. She compares Steward ironically to ‘a gentle squire, saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned’. When he leaves, Momma blows out the lamp and has a talk with her son. She tells Bailey and Maya to take the potatoes and onions from their bins and asks them to knock out the dividing wall between them. With ‘fearful slowness’, Uncle Willie climbs into the bin and they cover him with layers of potatoes and onions ‘like a casserole’.
Fortunately, ‘the boys’ do not come to the Store as they would have surely found and lynched him if they had. He has to stay there all night, though, just in case they appear and his moans can be heard through the layers of vegetables.
Chapter Four begins with a short reference to Mr. McElroy who lives in the big house next door to the Store. He is the only African-American she knows (apart from the principal and visiting teachers) who wears matching pants and jacket. He never laughs, but to his credit he likes to talk to Uncle Willie and never goes to Church. He is also a mystery: ‘An independent Black man. A near anachronism in Stamps.’ The narrative then switches as Maya explains her love for Bailey. In comparison to her, he is ‘small, graceful and smooth’ and she sees him as her ‘Kingdom Come’.
The narrative breaks again to describe the custom in Stamps of canning everything that could be preserved. During the killing season, all the neighbors help each other to slaughter hogs and even cows. The ladies from the church help Momma prepare the pork for sausages and the men chop up larger pieces of meat for curing. Throughout the year, until the next frost, they take their meals from the smokehouse, the garden and the shelves at the Store. At least twice a year they would have fresh meat and the children were sent into town to buy liver.
Maya and Bailey are pleased about the idea, but the pleasure is short-lived once they reach the white part of town. She describes herself and her brother as explorers ‘walking without weapons into man-eating animals’ territory’. The segregation in Stamps is so complete that African-American children do not ‘really, absolutely know what whites looked like’. They do know they are different and to be dreaded, though. She also remembers that as a child she thought white people were not ‘really real’: ‘Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn’t walk the way people did – they walked on their heels like horses.’
Chapter Five explains Momma’s two commandments: ‘Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’. Maya and Bailey are expected to address adults with respect (and a list of various appellations is given).
The only children in this environment who do not behave in this way are, we are told, ‘powhitetrash’. Some powhitetrash families live on Momma’s farm land behind the school and occasionally they come into the Store. The children are often rude and call Maya’s uncle by his first name. They also order him about and to Maya’s crying shame he obeys them. Momma also follows their orders, but she does not look servile as she anticipates their needs.
Around the age of 10, ‘these scruffy children’ cause her ‘the most painful and confusing experience’ she has ever had with her grandmother. After sweeping the yard and raking the dirt, Maya sees Momma sitting on the front porch wearing her starched white apron and admiring the yard. A troop of powhitetrash children approach and Momma moans a hymn and tells Maya to go inside. She goes as far as standing behind the screen door and supposes her ‘lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes’. The girls finally come and stand in front of Momma and one then another impersonates and mocks her.
Momma carries on singing and remains still. Maya describes the girls as dirty and kneels to see them better, ‘to remember them for all time’. One of the girls then crosses her eyes and Maya wants to inflict injury on them, but knows she is as ‘imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles’. One of the smaller ones does a puppet dance and the tallest one (who is almost a woman) says something quietly to the group. She then performs a handstand. Her dress falls and reveals she is not wearing any underwear. When she stands up, her friends clap her on the back and Momma changes her song to ‘Bread of Heaven’. As they leave, they shake their behinds and say, ‘Bye, Annie’ and Momma says goodbye to each of them (for example, ‘By, Miz Helen).
Maya cries and is infuriated that Momma has called them Miz. When Momma comes in, she touches Maya and Maya sees her as beautiful and realizes that something has happened which she does not completely understand. She knows Momma has won the contest, whatever it has been about. Maya rakes the yard again and takes Momma’s hand; they then go to look at it. She has made a heart with lots of smaller hearts growing inside, and has an arrow piercing through.
The racism of this small Southern town is evoked in the descriptions of Uncle Willie hiding in the vegetable bins and of Momma being taunted by the powhitetrash children. One of the many effects of racism is seen to be the lack of power against the whims of the dominant white group. Even though Momma owns the land these children live on, the racist ideology that has become naturalized is so effective that she is seen as a potential victim (although she does not behave like one).
The segregation in Stamps is described as so thorough that African-American children do not ‘really’ know what white people look like. Angelou deconstructs racist thinking in order to demonstrate both its prevalence and ignorant underpinning. When she wonders about how whites are not like ‘people’ she refuses to accept the marginalization that is implicit in racism.


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