I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Top Ten Quotes
- Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? p. 4
Maya’s self-loathing is revealed here as she describes her idea of beauty. It is as though she has internalized the racist views that see Aryan-white characteristics as the ideal.
- It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate. p. 49
This reference describes the slow yet powerful impact of the Depression on the African-American communities in the South in the 1930s.
- I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people? p. 84
Maya experiences guilt at this juncture for the death of Mr Freeman. She connects her lie in court (when she said he did not touch her before the rape) with his murder and decides at this point to stop speaking. She believes her words are somehow to blame and decides shortly after to stop talking.
- Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name’. It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks. p. 105
This quotation comes when Maya works for a white woman (Mrs Viola Cullinan), who decides to call her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Margaret’.
- The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose. Any break from routine may herald for them unbearable news. For this reason, Southern Blacks until the present generation could be counted among America’s arch conservatives.
Here, Maya captures the anxiety of Momma as she waits for Bailey to come home. He is later than expected and her fear for his safety is explained in relation to the dreaded possibility that he may have been lynched.
- All the Negroes had to do generally, and those at the revival especially, was bear up under this life of toils and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye. p. 125
In this reference, Maya uses a strong measure of irony to challenge the tenet that the meek shall inherit the earth. By questioning this, she undermines both racism and passivity to racism.
- It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.
This comes when Maya, her family and neighbors (from near and far) crowd into the Store to listen to the radio broadcast of Joe Louis boxing. The quotation captures the political and social significance of why he must not be beaten.
- The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gaugins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises. p. 174
At the much anticipated graduation, Maya is disappointed with the white visiting speaker (Donleavy) for exposing the schoolchildren to the limits of their opportunities. This is, of course, also a critique of the wider society that has encouraged the segregation of school children and the separate but not equal treatment of African-Americans.
- The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country’s table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast.
In this reference, Maya explains the divisive effect of racism and how this influences responses to crime and justice. As she points out, ‘the needs of a society determine its ethics’ and this redefines who the criminals actually are.
- The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. p. 260
This somewhat poetic description of how Maya struggles to gain work on the street-cars, despite the company’s racist employment policy, is undercut in the next few sentences. After looking into the hard eyes of a white ‘conducterette’ on the way home, she sees ‘the whole charade’ as having everything to do with her ‘being black and the receptionist being white’.