The title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, evokes a feeling of muffled hope. The reader can easily relate to the metaphor of a caged bird that moves on through life and tries to make the best of it. Although Maya Angelou had a life containing vulgarity and ugliness, she rose above her unfortunate situation and lived her life to the fullest. She continued on after being raped, being stabbed by her stepmother, and even becoming a teenage mother. The adversity gave her strength, and the diversity of family and environment resulted in her knowledge of the world and people around her. The most contrasting people in her life were her grandmother, Momma, and her mother, Mother Dear.
Momma was the epitome of a southern African-American woman. Maya once said, “Bailey, by the way” (102), and Momma told her she had committed a sin and prayed immediately for God to “forgive this child” (103). Her explanation to Maya of the outburst was that, “Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house” (103). Momma routinely went to church every Sunday, making sure to dress up accordingly and have the Sunday dinner ready for the pastor if he happened to be in town. Momma was a highly regarded woman who was referred to as “Mrs.” (48) which was unusual for a African-American to be called, and she had tried to be a usual, southern, God-fearing wife, but she married a total of three times and never found the right one. She also kept to the old ways and did not talk freely about whites. If she did bring white people into a conversation she would refer to them as “they” (47). Momma is, without a doubt, highly conservative. She considers herself a realist because of the fact that she does not go against the whites. She rationalizes reality is that whites are in control, and in fighting against the most powerful, she will most likely than not, fail and ruin herself and her family. Momma manages a strict house filled with necessary routine and control. She wanted the kids to set examples for the rest and often “sent [Maya and Bailey] to her bedroom with warnings to have [their] Sunday school lesson perfectly memorized or [they] knew what [they] could expect” (36). Maya learned discipline from Momma’s tough love. Momma continually showed extensive care for everything she became involved in, especially church, her town, and Maya and Bailey’s well being.
Mother Dear was a loose idealist with a nursing degree, but she chose to work at gambling parlors. Maya said it was “twenty years before [she] saw [Mother Dear] in a nursing uniform” (70) because she needed more glamour in her life that just a “straight eight-to-five” (70) job. She was a “fly by the seat of her pants” kind of person, who obviously loved taking chances have having continuous change in her life as opposed to routine. Maya said that she “never saw [Mother Dear] in the house” (64). Mother Dear liked to be “out and about”, keeping busy, making money, and having fun. Mother Dear made Bailey and Maya’s lives easy by giving them “a room with a two-sheeted bed, plenty to eat and store-bought clothes to wear” (68). Bailey and Maya barely even had chores to do which was quite a change from Momma. Mother Dear preferred to live her life freely and without being tied down, as she was never married. Mother Dear loved the kids and “was competent in providing for [them] – even if it meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions” (70). Mother Dear was a genuinely caring person, especially for Maya and Bailey, Jr., but she was not in real control of the situation from day to day and basically gave them the necessities for living and then left them to their own accord.
Mother Dear and Momma are differing in most aspects of their lives, but they do hold the same feelings about being independent women, caring for Bailey and Maya, and being strong in everything they do, however opposite their goals may be. Wearing lipstick or not, making the kids do many chores or not, are in the end, going to be much more petty issues than holding strong beliefs and being independent.
Maya Angelou had to show these two important people as part of her life because without them she would not be the person she is today. Mother Dear and Momma’s different opinions gave Maya the ability to see both perspectives, both sides of the story, and make her own judgment on the event, belief or feeling. Her need to show how religious Momma was and then to show how loose and lipstick-wearing Mother Dear had been essentially was meant to inform the reader and give them a complete picture of what Maya’s life was like and the reasoning behind her actions and thoughts.
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The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to help get you started.
Marguerite accomplished many things in the short time Angelou records for us. Which accomplishments do you think are most meaningful to her? Explain each and why it was important.
I. Thesis Statement: Marguerite had many accomplishments in the 16 years recorded in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Three of them are very important: securing a job as a conductorette, graduating from high school, and giving birth.
II. Securing a job as conductorette
A. Was “first Negro on the San Francisco streetcar”
B. Had wanted job and had worked hard to get it
C. Felt had gone against the “system” and won
D. Had controlled her own fate
III. Graduating from high school
A. Had been in many different schools
B. Had a good record
C. Had managed to graduate when pregnant and keep it a secret
D. An achievement—especially for a Black girl at that time in history
IV. Giving birth to baby
A. Had kept it a secret
B. Had finished school
C. Referred to it as a virgin pregnancy
D. Later would say best thing that ever happened to her
Contrast Bailey Johnson, Sr.’s wife (Vivian Baxter Johnson) and his mistress Dolores Stockland. Are they alike in any way? Explain.
(The entire section is 655 words.)