Critical Essays Settings in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


The variety of locales emphasizes Maya's ability to thrive, whether in the rural, Depression-era South, St. Louis, San Francisco, southern California, or Mexico.

Thrust into the threadbare black ghetto of Stamps in 1931, she empathizes with the black substrata, where laborers, fearful of intrusive whites and clinging to Bible-based promises, struggle for survival wages:

Brought back to the Store, the pickers would step out of the backs of trucks and fold down, dirt-disappointed, to the ground. No matter how much they had picked, it wasn't enough.

In St. Louis, far from Stamps' backwardness and religiosity, young Maya, bombarded by a titillating, racy newness, studies the contrasts:

The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe that they were against the law.

The change, which lasts only a year, ends abruptly. One day — without explanation — the traumatized eight-year-old Maya and her brother Bailey are on the train going back to Stamps, where the "barrenness was exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness."

After achieving partial reprieve from the guilt of Mr. Freeman's death, Maya, threatened by violence, as depicted in Bailey's bug-eyed viewing of a bloated corpse pulled from a pond and lodged in the local jail, is taken to California by Momma, moved from Los Angeles to Oakland and finally to San Francisco's Fillmore district.

Enthralled with San Francisco's cultural mix, she exults:

The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen. Where the odors of tempura, raw fish and cha had dominated, the aroma of chitlings, greens and ham hocks now prevailed.

As maturity and a boost in self-esteem work their magic, Maya nests in San Francisco's freedom, gradually turning it into home.

On a brief vacation in southern California, she envisions visiting Daddy Bailey at a "manor house surrounded by grounds and serviced by a liveried staff." The letdown of seeing his cramped trailer, where family squabbles penetrate frail inner walls, returns her from fantasy to reality. A day trip to Ensenada in Bailey's bulky Hudson plunges Maya into a Mexican milieu as poor as Stamps, yet blatantly festive in honor of her father's arrival. On first glimpse, she reports:

We pulled up in the dirt yard of a cantina where half-clothed children chased mean-looking chickens around and around. The noise of the car brought women to the door of the ramshackle building but didn't distract the single-minded activity of either the grubby kids or the scrawny fowls.

Later, in an escape from a confrontation with Bailey's mistress and from fear of retribution for the wound in her side by her fierce, relentless Baxter kin, she beds down in a wheelless, rimless "tall-bodied gray car" and spends a month in a junkyard on her own.

Having satisfied her curiosity about life in a teen commune, she returns to the security of Vivian, Daddy Clidell, and San Francisco.

Undergirding these enthralling and sometimes picaresque adventures are humanistic themes, each pertaining to some personal fault or social lapse which inhibits Maya's self-fulfillment. These broad ideas




suffuse the narrative with significance that is at times poignant and, at others, triumphant. Crucial epiphanies, or coming to knowledge, such as the yard incident in which Maya draws the heart in the dust to honor her grandmother or the night that the family hides Uncle Willie in the vegetable bin to protect him from racist violence, highlight the speaker's pilgrimage toward understanding. The reader, impelled to detest a racist white dentist who would rather treat a dog than relieve the suffering of a black patient, to decry brutal child abuse compounded with guilt and alienation from family, and to cheer a spunky teenager who refuses job discrimination, is likely to identify with and admire a transcendent Maya, who looks within for the way out of racial and patriarchal bondage.