Book Summary: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Are you looking for a book summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key insights from Maya Angelou’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About?

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brutal insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can change the course of history. A modern American classic, Maya Angelou’s memoir is beloved around the world.

Maya and her brother are sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, where they have to deal with the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age, and she is forced to live with the consequences for the rest of her life. 

Later, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met William Shakespeare and fell in love with him”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

One of our favourite quotes from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is:

“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.”

Who is The Author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

Maya Angelou has worked as a waitress, artist, actress, film-maker, writer and activist. As well as her autobiography, she has written several volumes of poetry, including ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ for President Clinton’s inauguration. Now, she has a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Book Summary

A world-famous black novelist recounts her early years of struggle with poverty and racism.

INTRODUCTION 

Maya Angelou introduces her book with a short dramatic monologue. (This book has been called a memoir and an autobiographical novel; we’ll call it a novel here, since it has the prose form of a novel, with developed characters and narrative, and since the facts of Angelou’s life are often described in a fictional manner.) 

The narrator is the adult Maya Angelou, who flashes back to a real or imagined scene of her childhood, probably in Stamps, Arkansas. (Note: Maya Angelou’s birth name was Marguerite Johnson; her nickname was “Maya”; she changed her name to Maya Angelou as an adult stage performer. Angelou pronounces her last name “Angelo,” as in Michelangelo—not “Angeloo.”)

Several images dominate the scene, which is a small-town church where the girl is presenting a recitation to the congregation: the overly long, lavender taffeta dress, made from a white woman’s throwaway; the wiggling, giggling, mocking children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. 

Maya knows that the children expect her to forget her lines and fail. Angelou uses irony on several levels. The reader knows that the distraught child will someday become a professional writer and performer; knows that she will be a spokeswoman for African Americans, though in this scene Angelou candidly shows Maya fantasizing about being white, blue-eyed, blond-haired. 

Maya thinks she is unattractive, nappy-haired, and too big. Angelou’s final dominant image is that of a green persimmon, or perhaps it is a lemon, that Maya catches between the legs and squeezes; she urinates on herself as she runs to escape the scene. In fewer than four pages, Angelou has set the tone for the novel and presented an extraordinary central voice.

CHAPTERS 1–5 

After the epigraphic introduction, the novel opens with Maya (age three) and her brother, Bailey Johnson (age four), arriving in Stamps.

Angelou uses specific imagery and, occasionally, dialect to describe her grandmother, Sister Annie “Momma” Henderson, the Wm. Johnson General Store, and the blacks who populate this section of the segregated Southern town in the early 1930s. Uncle Willie, their father’s severely disabled brother, teaches them their multiplication tables and a rare kind of pride. The whites are distant but threatening.

Maya often uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to describe people or events, but sometimes the reader is unsure where the reality stops and the hyperbole begins, as in her consideration of some of the more extreme Arkansas racists. 

Her brother Bailey is her chief emotional tie, her anchor, despite Momma’s maternal influence. One staggering scene involves a visit to the store by obnoxious, trashy white girls. Momma typically defends herself from their mockery by singing a church hymn.

CHAPTERS 6–9 

Angelou contrasts the rudeness and mockery, sometimes the real danger, of the white population of Stamps with the love and joy she finds in her black community. Maya is a very bright, curious, daring, sometimes naughty little girl. 

Much of her fun is in cahoots with Bailey. It is he who deftly steals pickles from the barrel, eavesdrops on the Rev. Howard Thomas’s gossip about the sexual misdeeds of parishioners, and joins her in convulsive laughter in church when Sister Monroe gets carried away in her contrapuntal encouragement of Elder Thomas.

Chapter 8 opens with Angelou’s oft-quoted condemnation of racism, particularly in the South. Stamps is compared to “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi” or any other Southern town where “a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream.” Daddy Bailey makes a surprise visit, and Maya’s world is turned upside down. Maya prepares to move to St. Louis to stay with her mother, Vivian Baxter.

CHAPTERS 10–13 

The slow rhythms of Stamps, with the emphasis on church and rural life, contrast with the upbeat metropolitan swing of St. Louis.

However, Angelou shows that the city way is not necessarily superior. Maya is disappointed by the ignorance of her schoolmates and the cruel rudeness of the teachers at Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School. Only the building is impressive. Thanks to Uncle Willie’s unusual method of instruction, Maya and Bailey are superior math students, and both have read much more than most of their peers.

The dark side of Maya’s stay in St. Louis begins as a result of her continuing insecurity. She has terrible nightmares and starts sleeping with her mother, whose bed Mr. Freeman also shares. When the mother is away, Mr. Freeman becomes too familiar with Maya, touching her inappropriately and encouraging her to touch him. 

Angelou describes this in terms that the eight-year-old Maya might use and with candor; she uses euphemisms such as “pocketbook” for vagina and “thing” for penis. While she is confused by the intimacy, Maya confesses to liking the attention and being held. 

This only adds to her ambiguity. Maya’s mother sometimes disappears for a night. After one such episode, Mr. Freeman’s confusing intimacy turns to violent rape. Angelou uses Maya’s fantasies to describe her hopes for rescue, perhaps by the Green Hornet, a fictional superhero of the time. 

Angelou uses escapism to show how she coped after the rape, saying that she “was somewhere above everything.” Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Maya’s beloved brother, Bailey, if she tells anyone what has happened. 

Vivian discovers evidence of the rape, and Mr. Freeman goes to trial. The trauma increases for Maya as she must testify. She feels ashamed of the events leading up to the rape and lies about them under oath, a situation that worries her. Following the conviction, while Mr. Freeman apparently is released on bail, three of Maya’s maternal uncles provide their own justice and kick him to death. 

Maya’s capacity for retreat and fantasy take over again, and she stops talking for months, except to her brother. Sometimes she tries not to breathe because she thinks that even her breath could kill.

CHAPTERS 14–19 

Once again, Vivian sends Maya to Stamps at a time when a child would most seem to need her mother. Angelou uses the peaceful imagery of Stamps to suggest that this probably is a blessing. In the absence of Vivian (called, not ironically, “Mother Dear” by her children), Maya finds stability in the rural black community and, eventually, healing. 

The two people most responsible are the antithesis of Vivian: Momma Henderson and Mrs. Bertha Flowers. The latter is a refined, elegant African American lady of Stamps who encourages Maya’s interest in reading and her latent talent for recitation. 

This contrasts with the frustration of the introduction of the book in which a distracted Maya could not get beyond the lines of a poem that state, prophetically, that she “didn’t come to stay.” Mrs. Flowers provides some of the realistic education and training that young Maya will need if she is to fulfill her dream of becoming a star.

Angelou uses specific imagery to describe Stamps as a town of contrasts. White people like Mrs. Viola Cullinan seem more refined than the poor white trash but are just as dangerous in their cruel condescension. Her rich array of dishes symbolizes a wealth the injustice of which Maya just begins to understand. 

Saturdays bring extra chores but great delight in family, community, food, and recreation. Bailey becomes entranced with Kay Francis, a movie star who reminds him of his mother. He will soon leave Stamps, briefly, to search for Vivian. The community gathers to listen to the radio report of a Joe Louis fight.

The heavyweight champion provides hope and pride to the Stamps blacks who identify with him. Despite the racism, segregation, and humiliation, this is a relatively stable, healthy time for Maya.

CHAPTERS 20–25 

Food is a continuing metaphor for Angelou. The barbecued spareribs, fried chicken, baked hams, fried fish, and marvelous pastries represent more than just something to eat. They are symbols of home, community, love, and nurturing. 

A major event in Maya’s life in Stamps further evokes the warmth of family and community: her graduation from the eighth grade at Lafayette County Training School. In honor of her achievement, she receives precious gifts—money, a new dress, handkerchiefs, a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, and a Mickey Mouse watch. It is an encouraging time of recognition for values that Angelou takes seriously.

Contrasted with this moment of pride is a visit to the ironically named Dr. Lincoln, the local white dentist. Momma Henderson had granted Dr. Lincoln a small business loan and expected him to treat her granddaughter’s aching tooth. 

The dentist, however, is a racist and announces that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth. Momma sends Maya out of the office, and the girl indulges in a marvelously imaginative fantasy about how her grandmother is setting the dentist straight. 

In the fantasy, Angelou has the country grandmother speak with erudition more fitting to Mrs. Flowers as Momma takes the “contemptuous scoundrel” to task. At the end of the chapter, Maya overhears Momma telling Uncle Willie what really happened. 

In Momma’s delightful dialect, she tells how she extracted $10 interest, a considerable sum, from Dr. Lincoln in order to take Maya to a black dentist in Texarkana. Maya, of course, prefers her fantasized version. The adult Angelou, the narrator, frequently suggests that she, too, prefers fantasy to boring old facts. The reader might be aware of this.

CHAPTERS 26–32 

At the age of 13, Maya once more goes to live with Vivian, who now resides in California with a new husband, Daddy Clidell. Clidell at least poses no threat to Maya. World War II has just begun, and Angelou describes the banishment of Japanese Americans to internment camps. 

She candidly states that blacks moved into the vacated businesses and properties, taking advantage of the official distrust of Asians. As Maya becomes a young woman, she is allowed to visit Daddy Bailey, who lives in southern California with his girlfriend, Dolores. Angelou describes the young Maya’s amazement upon meeting Dolores, a woman only a few years older than Maya and with “the unformed body of a girl.” Dolores and Maya compete for Daddy Bailey’s attention. 

The conflict reaches its peak after Daddy Bailey takes only Maya with him on a raucous, drunken (for Daddy) romp to Ensenada, Mexico. After they return, Dolores and Maya finally come to blows, and the live-in girlfriend stabs the daughter. Daddy Bailey, ever vain, seems more concerned about his reputation in the black community than about his daughter.

Unfettered by parental guidance, Maya leaves Daddy Bailey’s home, spends a night in a junked car, joins a multiracial group of runaway teens who seem unusually civilized and moral, and, for a month or so, enjoys the illusion of freedom. After her wound has healed, so she won’t have to explain to Vivian and risk more revenge murders, she returns to San Francisco.

CHAPTERS 33–36 

Before ending the autobiography, Angelou relates two significant events. After a “miserable little encounter” with a racist receptionist, and a considerable effort by Maya, she becomes San Francisco’s first black trolley conductor at the age of 16 or 17, but claiming to be 19. 

Shortly after, she decides to seduce a neighbor boy in order to clarify her own sexuality. She becomes pregnant in the single encounter and gives birth to a son in whom she finally seems to discover her purpose.

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