I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 30-33
In Chapter Thirty, Maya has been invited to her father’s for the summer vacation. He lives in Southern California and because of his air of superiority she secretly expects him to live in a manor house. She has been in correspondence with his girlfriend (Dolores) and is told she will be met at the station by her. When they meet, they look at each other in disbelief. Dolores looks like a young girl (and is only in her early 20s) and Maya discovers later that her father had told Dolores that she was eight and cute as a button.
Dolores and Maya’s father live together in a trailer park on the outskirts of the outskirts of town and Dolores keeps the home clean with ‘the orderliness of a coffin’. Maya’s father is an excellent cook and works in the kitchen of a naval hospital, although he and Dolores both say that he is a dietitian for the United States’ navy. His speciality is Mexican food and he crosses the border every week to pick up supplies. Maya believes that if Dolores were not so aloof she would know that he could buy these in the nearby town.
One evening, he says he is taking Maya to Mexico; Maya is surprised but pleased and Dolores is jealous. They head for Ensenada and later arrive at their destination, which is five miles out of the city limits. When they get out of the car, women crowd around them and they laugh when he tells them Maya is his daughter. They go in a bar and he is treated like ‘the hero of the hour’ and Maya sees a new, unaffected side to him. It becomes obvious that he never belonged in Stamps and less to the ‘slow-moving, slow-thinking Johnson family’.
She begins to lose her reserve and joins in the dancing and throws streamers at the ceiling. After a while, she realizes her father is not there and asks in her schoolgirl Spanish (which must sound archaic) where he is. This is greeted with laughter and an embrace. She then begins to panic and thinks he might have left without her. She sees the car outside, though, and decides to wait in it until he returns.
After waiting for some time, she begins to be fearful again and worries about dying in a Mexican dirt yard, ‘without recognition or contribution’. She then notices him being guided towards her. He is staggering and she persuades him to get in the car. He lies down in the back seat (drunk) and she decides that although she cannot drive she will do so tonight. After having the car turned round for her, she drives back down a mountainside and crashes into another car at a guard’s box. People surround their car and they only begin to feel sympathy when she explains that the man in the back is her father. He then comes round quickly and after chatting with the guard and the other driver he assumes control once more.
In Chapter Thirty One, they reach home and Maya goes to her room. Her father and Dolores argue; he leaves and she begins to cry. Maya feels pity for her and comes out to tell her that she did not mean to come between them. Dolores reprimands her for eavesdropping and tells her to return to her mother, if she has one. They argue and Dolores then calls her mother a whore. Maya slaps her and Dolores grabs her in return. When Maya walks out, she realizes there is blood on her arm. Before she can fully comprehend what has happened, Dolores comes outside screaming and runs at her with a hammer.
Maya takes refuge in her father’s car for the second time that day and he appears with the neighbors he has been visiting. He takes Dolores back inside and then gets in the car with Maya. He sits in a pool of her blood and is perplexed for once and she tells him Dolores has cut her. She presumes they are going to hospital, and that she is dying, but he takes her to a house and they get out of the car. A woman from the house whispers for Maya to come round to the side and inside she takes a look at the wound that is now beginning to clot. It is washed and taped up and later her father explains in the car that he took there to see if she could be treated away from a hospital as he wants to avoid a scandal. After all, he tells her, he is a Mason, an Elk, a naval dietitian and the first Negro church deacon in the Lutheran church.
Whilst she was being treated at the stranger’s house, her father was making arrangements for her to stay with other friends in yet another mobile park. He leaves her there and says he will see her around noon the next day. When he comes the next day, he gives her a dollar and says he will be back later in the evening. After he leaves, she makes a few sandwiches, counts her money and walks out. She has only just over three dollars, but once she closes the door her decision has ‘jelled’. She has no key and will not stand around waiting for her father’s friends to return to pityingly let her back in. She cannot go back to her mother’s either until the wound has healed as otherwise ‘we were certain to experience another scene of violence’.
In Chapter Thirty Two, she spends the day wandering aimlessly though the bright streets. She then goes to the library and changes her bandage. Later, she passes a junkyard and decides to spend the night in one of the clean ones. She sleeps there that night and when she awakes she sees a ‘collage’ of faces at the window’. They are around the same age as her and they accept her explanation as to why she is there. The tall boy, Bootsie, says she can stay if she honors the rule: that no two people of the opposite sex may sleep together. There is also no stealing permitted as this would bring the police to the yard and would mean foster homes or juvenile courts for them. They all have jobs and the money is held by Bootsie and is spent communally.
During the month she stays, she learns to drive a car, dance and curse and, on her last weekend, she and her dance partner come second in a jitterbug contest. This unquestioning acceptance by her peers changes her over the month and undoes her familiar insecurity. After a month, she rings her mother to ask her to send for her, and asks that the fare be sent to the airline rather than her father’s address (which she does).
Maya is back at home in Chapter Thirty Three and feels she has swapped some of her youth for knowledge. She realizes that Bailey is also much older now. During the summer, he has made friends with ‘slick street boys’ and is more distant. However, they are closer in their interest in public dancing. She concerns herself less with everything and everyone and has become blasé in two months.
The final part of this chapter focuses on Bailey and Mother and how Maya sees them as ‘entangled in the Oedipal skein’. Bailey dresses like his mother’s heroes (big men in rackets) and acquires a withered white prostitute. After an argument between mother and son, he leaves. The next day Mother’s eyes are red and when Maya visits Bailey (at his lodgings) she sees that his are too. He is only 16, but tells her has that he has not been 16 for years. He explains that Mother has already visited him and has arranged for him to have a job on the Southern Pacific. He will begin as a dining-car waiter and tells her not to worry.
Maya’s adventure in Mexico and the decision to drive her father home acts as a comic interlude in this story of her development. This comedy is balanced by Dolores’ later violently jealous reaction to her presence and by the seemingly forced decision to live in a disused car for a month.
When she returns to her mother, in Chapter Thirty Three, she believes she has swapped some of her youth for knowledge and this is also evident in Bailey when he tells her he has not been 16 for years. Both Maya and Bailey have learned to be independent from an early age, and the latter part of this first instalment of her autobiography depicts their maturation and individuation. This independence has been forced upon them from when they were sent to Momma at the ages of three and four, but it is telling that Maya avoids condemning her mother for this. It is in the spirit of this volume and the following ones that Angelou is seen to value responsibility and appears to be inspired by what she learns from experience.