I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapters 9-11
A year later, in Chapter Nine, their father (Bailey) comes to Stamps without warning. With his arrival, her ‘seven-year-old world humpty-dumptied never to be put back together again’. He is described as ‘blindingly handsome’ and speaks ‘proper English’ like the school principal and is the first cynic she has ever met. She is proud of him and cannot wait for the gossip about him to get around town. Everyone would be able to tell that he is rich (although she learns later that he had been a hotel doorman). She then begins to worry about being compared to him negatively and does not want anyone to see him.
After three weeks, she is relieved when he says he has to return to California. The threat of his leaving is removed once he tells them he is not staying. She will also not feel that he is intruding into her ‘every private second’. She then learns he is taking them with him and she cannot decide if she wants this or not. However, she gets in the car and he tells her and Bailey that they are going to their mother (who now lives in St Louis). Both are frightened and shocked, but he takes them anyway. On the drive, she asks Bailey in Pig Latin if he is their father after all, and wonders if he is kidnapping them. Her father answers in kind and asks, who would want to kidnap you? She did not know adults could speak this language and sees it as one more case in point of ‘Grownups’ Betrayal’.
When they meet their mother, Maya is struck dumb and assailed by her beauty. She ‘knows’ immediately that she had sent Maya away as she is too beautiful to have children. Bailey falls ‘instantly and forever in love’ and forgets the loneliness they shared as ‘unwanted children’. Their father leaves for California a few days later and Maya is neither glad nor sorry: ‘He was a stranger, and if he chose to leave us with a stranger, it was all of one piece.’
In Chapter Ten, it is explained how their mother’s mother, Grandmother Baxter, is almost white and came to St Louis at the turn of the century to study nursing. She met and married Grandfather Baxter at the hospital and he is described as Afro-Caribbean (with a West Indian accent).
The Baxters live in the African-American section of the city and in the mid 1930s it is described as having ‘all the finesse of a gold-rush town’. The children meet the number runners, gamblers, lottery takers and whiskey salesman not only in the streets, but in their living room too. They are often there waiting silently for Grandmother Baxter. Her white skin and pince-nez bring her a lot of respect. Moreover, ‘the reputation of her six mean children and the fact that she was a precinct captain compounded her power’. She has ‘pull’ with the police department; these men wait to ask favors from her and she gets their votes in return.
Occasionally, Maya and Bailey’s mother asks them to meet her at Louie’s (a long, dark tavern near school) and Maya compares her to a pretty kite that floats above her head. They learn the dance called the Time Step there, which is a series of taps, jumps and rests, and perform to Mother’s friends. They are applauded, but we are told it is not until years later that Maya finds the joy and freedom of dancing well.
The story moves to the children’s uncles: Uncle Tutti, Tom and Ira. They are well-known young men in St Louis and are set apart from other African-Americans because they have city jobs, and because of their meanness which is encouraged by their father. Maya gives an example of this and tells of how they treated Pat Patterson after he cursed her mother. They found him in a saloon and supported her (Bibbi/Vivian) as she beat him with a policeman’s billy and left him this side of death. The family brag about the binding quality of the Baxter blood and Uncle Tommy explains that Maya gets her name from when Bailey called her ‘mya sister, which was elaborated into Maya.
They live in the Baxter house for six months until Mother moves them in with her. Bailey calls her Mother Dear, but Maya has difficulties in seeing her as real. She is also afraid of not being accepted: ‘The weight of appreciation and the threat, which was never spoken of, of a return to Momma were burdens that clogged my childish wits into impassivity.’ Because of this, she gains the nickname, ‘Old Lady’. Mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, also lives with them and he is described as lucky to be her partner.
In Chapter Eleven, Maya explains how she uses the same shield in St Louis as she did in Stamps. That is, she protects herself by feeling that she has not come to stay. Mother provides for them and although she is a qualified nurse, she does not work at this profession whilst they are there. Mr. Freeman brings in money and she earns extra cutting poker games in gambling parlors. When Mother is at work, Mr. Freeman eats in the kitchen and then puts his whole self into waiting for her to return. Maya feels sorry for him as she would for a litter of pigs.
Because of her vivid imagination and memories, Maya has nightmares. When this happens, she goes to her Mother’s bed. One morning after sleeping in this bed, her Mother gets up early and she is left alone with Mr. Freeman. He sexually abuses her. Afterwards, he says if she ever tells anyone he will kill Bailey. She does not understand what has happened and simply does not understand him. On another occasion, he abuses her again and he is once more distant from her afterwards.
The narrative shifts finally to Maya describing how she is enjoying reading more than ever and joins the library in the spring. The books that she reads become more real than her family.
In these chapters, Maya and Bailey’s move to St Louis to be with Mother and the extended Baxter family is described initially as a colorful, exciting experience. The Baxters are powerful in their unity and have ‘pull’ in the community.
However, as Chapter Eleven indicates, this is also the time when Maya is isolated and abused by Mr Freeman. As the autobiography progresses, this abuse and his later rape of her in Chapter Twelve have a devastating impact on her as she grows up. Angelou captures her own innocence and bemusement at what is happening and the shift at the end of Chapter Eleven that explains how books become more real than her family at this time may be seen as the young child’s dissociation from events.