Summary and Analysis
A shift in locale alters the tempo of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. From the microcosm of Stamps to that of Caroline Street in St. Louis, Maya and Bailey travel light-years away from the simplistic morality and Bible-decreed fundamentalism of Grandmother Annie Henderson to the seamy, potentially violent underworld precinct superintended by Grandmother Baxter. Given their firm Southern upbringing and academic promise, Maya and Bailey cope well with school. At home, they continue to marvel at their sybaritic mother, the kind of woman Angelou epitomizes in Now Sheba Sings the Song as "Lip smacking, finger snapping, toe tapping / Shoulder bouncing, hip throwing, breast thrusting, eye flashing, / Love of good and God and Life." A foil to her inarticulate, cunning three older brothers, Vivian moves Maya and Bailey to the house she shares with her paramour, Mr. Freeman, to make a weak attempt at motherhood.
Perpetually insecure, Maya, who suffers from nightmares and at times longs to be a boy, perceives herself as a temporary guest among her Baxter relatives. Ironically, retreat to her mother's bed places her in immediate jeopardy — alongside the lustful child ravisher who eventually annihilates her innocence. In recounting the violation, Maya resorts to euphemisms that she learned in Stamps: "thing" for "penis" and "pocketbook" for "vagina." The supporting images — helpless piglets awaiting slaughter, the "inside of a freshly killed chicken," and even fears that Mr. Freeman will die from sexual ecstasy — replicate the silent death that later reduces Maya to a near zombie-like state.
Unaccustomed to fatherly attentions, the naive Maya, held fast in strong arms, fantasizes that Mr. Freeman is her real parent. In a bitter anticlimax, her abuser rolls over, "leaving [her] in a wet place" and blaming her for urinating on the bed. Doleful because she faces yet another rejection, she fears that he will never cuddle her again. From the clarity of adult perspective, Angelou concludes: "It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn't understand and who made no effort to understand mine."
numbers runners petty street criminals who collect money from people betting on a lucky number.
pince-nez eyeglasses which have no temple pieces and which rely on a spring to secure them to the bridge of the nose.
had pull with influenced.
German Brot dark, round glazed loaves of rye or wheat bread.
Toussaint L'Ouverture François-Dominique Toussaint-L'Ouverture (1743-1803), military leader and liberator of Haiti.
Alley Oop the dinosaur-riding cave man and beau of Ooola, both characters in V. T. Hamlin's popular cartoon strip, which originated in 1933.
The Shadow a popular radio program premiering on the CBS "Detective Story" in August 1930, which grew from Walter Gibson's serialized novels in Street and Smith magazine. The character was originally played by Jack LaCurto; in 1937, Orson Welles assumed the role.
Horatio Alger Graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Alger (1832-99) wrote 130 books in three series — Ragged Dick, Luck and Pluck, and Tattered Tom — about determined boys who work their way up from poverty and obscurity to fame and riches. Altogether, the Horatio Alger series sold twenty million copies.
Tiny Tim beloved crippled son of Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens' classic novel A Christmas Carol, published in serial form in 1843.
Katzenjammer Kids cartoon characters in a New York Journal strip drawn by Rudolph Dirks. A hybrid version of Max and Moritz, a German cartoon, the strip was first printed in 1897.