I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 34-36
In her room at home, in Chapter Thirty Four, Maya feels like having a change and decides to go to work. She considers her options and is taken with the idea of being a conductor on the streetcars. Women have been replacing men during the war and Mother is as easy to persuade as she anticipates. However, she tells her ‘colored people’ are not accepted.
At first Maya is disappointed, but decides to try anyway. At the offices, the receptionist looks as surprised to see her as Maya is to see how dingy the interior is. The woman tries to deter her (saying untruthfully that Maya has to go through an agency and that the boss is not in). Maya thinks of them both playing an age-old role, but on the way home she looks into the hard eyes of the white conductor and sees the whole charade as being about her being black and the receptionist being white: she decides to carry on trying to gain work as a conductor.
Her mother supports her in this decision and both come to admire each other more. After numerous visits to the streetcar offices, the receptionist calls Maya to the desk and asks her to fill in the job application forms. She lies on it (saying she is 19 and that she used to drive for Mrs. Annie Henderson, a white lady). She is given physical examinations and is finally hired as the first African-American to work on the San Francisco streetcars.
She does the job for a semester. Her shifts are split so haphazardly she presumes it is done out of malice, but Mother drives her to and from work at dawn in support.
In the spring, she returns to classes, but within weeks she realizes she and her schoolmates are moving diametrically away from each other. She begins to cut classes, and her mother insists if she does not want to go to school she has to tell her as she will not be put in the position of lying to a white woman, or being told something she does not know.
In Chapter Thirty Five, Maya explains that she has been reading The Well of Loneliness and this is her introduction to lesbianism. In her ignorance, she thinks a lesbian is synonymous with a hermaphrodite. She begins to notice that her voice has become heavy and her hands and feet are far from dainty. Her breasts are small at the age of 16 and her armpits remain as smooth as her face. She is worried that she is developing into a lesbian and asks her mother. She also tells her that something is growing in her vagina. Maya is told to bring the dictionary and is shown the definition of vulva. The relief melts her fears as she understands what is happening to her body.
However, less than two weeks later she begins to worry again and is moved by the sight of a female friend’s breasts. Maya ‘reasons’ with herself that she has none of the usual traits, as she does not wear trousers or have big shoulders. She decides she needs a boyfriend and takes matters into her own hands. She sees that she is not ‘sought after’ and is comparatively plain. Two handsome brothers live nearby and are easily the most eligible in the area; she sees no reason why she should not make her experiment with the best of the lot.
One evening as she walks up the hill, the brother she has chosen walks into her trap. He says hello and she asks him if he would like to have sexual intercourse with her. He is surprised and she follows up this advantage by asking him to take her somewhere. They go to a furnished room of one of his friends who leaves them alone when they arrive. No words are spoken and there is no romance (as she understands it). He shows their experience has reached a climax when he gets up abruptly. Outside in the street, they part from each other with little more than ‘okay, see you around’. Neither feels as though much has happened and there was no pain of entry ‘thanks to Mr. Freeman nine years before’.
At home, she reviews the failure and thinks not only did she not enjoy it, ‘but my normalcy was still a question’. Three weeks later she finds herself pregnant.
In the final chapter (Chapter Thirty Six), Maya feels as though the world has ended and she is the only person who knows it. She also has to face up to how she has brought this catastrophe on to herself. She sends a letter to Bailey who is now at sea with the merchant marine and he writes back to caution her against telling Mother (as she would make her quit school). Bailey is worried that Maya will not complete her education and receive her high school diploma.
Mother does not notice any changes in Maya as the pregnancy progresses and Maya tells her nothing about it. Bailey comes home when she is midway through the pregnancy and Mother leaves for Alaska for three months when Maya is at the six months stage.
Two days after V-Day, Maya receives her diploma. She leaves a note on Daddy Clidell’s pillow and lets him know about her pregnancy. There is some confusion on his part about when she is due (thinking she is three weeks pregnant rather than due in three weeks), but when Mother returns home she sees she is almost ready to have the baby and accepts it pragmatically.
For the next two weeks Maya is taken on rounds of visiting doctors and shopping. After a short labor, she gives birth to her son and sees him as totally hers. The book ends with Mother showing her that she does not have to think about doing the right thing with the baby, as she will do so instinctively. Maya falls asleep with her son lying next to her and wakes up with her arm bent to form a tent with the blanket that covers them.
This first volume ends with the birth of Maya’s son and the arrival of somebody who is to be ‘totally hers’. Her decision to find out about her ‘normalcy’, which leads to her being pregnant, is as candid as the other revelations about herself and her family and it is also telling that this potentially life-wrecking outcome is regarded as inspirational.
The pragmatism of Mother and Momma has also been inculcated in Maya as she reflects on incidents that she gains strength from (and which would have weakened others). The title of the novel is taken from a line in the poem ‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar and this is used by Angelou to continue to uphold the theme of resistance against oppression. It is important to understand that the tone of her work avoids being immodest as she relates the ways in which she and her family have challenged racism, but this is a narrative of triumph and survival that refuses to be silenced (just as the caged bird refuses to accept its imprisonment).
The theme of overcoming the odds has since become a cliché in ‘mis lit’ (the so-called literature of misery), but the Angelou autobiographies are separate from this recent trend. Her works may be regarded instead as politicized texts that declare the importance of listening to voices that come from the marginalized parts of society.