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


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 6-8

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Chapter Six refers to Reverend Howard Thomas who is the presiding elder of their district. When he visits their church every three months, he stays at Momma’s on the Saturday night and Maya and Bailey hate him ‘unreservedly’. They particularly dislike the way he takes the best parts of the chicken and his prayers at breakfast are so long that their food goes cold.
In his sermon in church, he takes his text from ‘Deuteronomy’ and Maya is ‘stretched between hating his voice and wanting to listen to her favorite book of the Bible’.
The narrative shifts slightly to explain how Sister Monroe lives in the country and cannot attend the Sunday service every week. She makes up for the absences by shouting and grasping at their usual minister. On this day, she begins to shout ‘preach it’ and Bailey quietly mimics her (to make Maya laugh). Sister Monroe then breaks past the deacons and reaches the pulpit. Reverend Thomas continues preaching as he moves away from her, but she hits him on the back of his head with her purse in her excitement. His false teeth jump out of his mouth and they land near Maya’s shoe.
Bailey’s laughter triggers Maya’s and she slides to the floor passing gas and urine. Uncle Willie tells them he will whip them and they receive the whipping of their lives in the parsonage next door. He had to stop finally because Bailey yells so loudly that the minister’s wife asks him to quieten them down in order to not disturb what is left of the service.
In Chapter Seven, it is explained that Momma has been married three times. Mr Johnson was her first husband (and was Maya’s grandfather). He left Momma at the turn of the century with two small sons to raise alone. Maya knows nothing about her second husband, Mr Henderson, and has met the third one (Mr Murphy) only briefly.
People tell Maya that Momma used to be pretty when she was younger, but she sees only her power and strength. Each Sunday she is asked to lead the hymn in church, and each time she looks amazed to be asked. She also tries to teach the children to use the ‘paths in life’ that she and previous generations found to be safe: ‘She didn’t cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to insolently.’ She sees herself as a realist rather than a coward and stands up to ‘them’ year after year: ‘Wasn’t she the only Negro woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs?’ This occurred years before Maya and Bailey came to Stamps and is to do with the time Momma hid a man being hunted ‘for assaulting white womanhood’. When he was later apprehended, he explained he had taken refuge in ‘Mrs Henderson’s Store’. The judge asked that Mrs Henderson be subpoenaed and when she appeared in court the judge, the bailiff and the assembled whites laughed over the ‘gaffe of calling a Negro woman Mrs’.
Chapter Eight refers to the segregation in Stamps and how the Depression has hit the white area with ‘cyclonic impact’, but has seeped into the African-American area more slowly (and for longer). The children are taught to not waste anything. They learn how to resole their shoes and Momma makes their clothes. Welfare agencies give food to the poor African-American and white families and people stop raising hogs as it is too difficult to get slop rich enough to feed them. Momma keeps the Store going by trading with the customers’ goods from the welfare centers.
The narrative switches to one Christmas when Maya and Bailey receive gifts from their parents who live separately ‘in a heaven called California’. Until this time, Maya is convinced her parents are dead, but then comes this Christmas ‘with its awful presents’. Her father sends his photograph, and she later learns this typifies his vanity. Their mother sends her a tea set and a doll with blue eyes and yellow hair.
Both she and Bailey cry and it is as though the gifts open the door to questions that neither have wanted to ask, such as ‘why did they send us away?’. Bailey thinks the gifts mean that their mother (Vivian) is going to come for them soon.
The difficulty of being separated from her parents is expressed in Chapter Eight as Maya describes the intrusive impact of their gifts. Both she and Bailey have apparently distanced themselves from thoughts of their parents, but with the arrival of the unfortunate presents memories resurface and they wonder why they have been sent away.
The choice of presents also demonstrates how little her mother and father know her at this stage. The photograph from her father is, as she says, a sign of his vanity. The tea set and blonde-haired doll from Mother are stereotypically feminine choices, and not at all apt for the pensive little girl who thinks she is ugly (and not being white is an aspect of this low self-esteem) and loves reading.


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