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Free Study Guide for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: Book Summary

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At the age of three, Maya and her brother Bailey, who is four, are shipped off to live with their paternal grandmother, Momma Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas, for their parents are getting a divorce. Momma Henderson lives with Uncle Willie in the rear of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, an establishment which serves cotton pickers and sawmen. The store serves as the center of activity in the town.

Maya and Bailey are expected to work in the store. They must get up at dawn to wait on customers who stop on their way to work. Many of the customers will return to the store in the evening after their work is done. For Maya and Bailey, the store is their whole life. It is also their teacher, for they learn some valuable lessons from their encounters and interactions with different people.


Chapter 1 introduces Maya’s early life, her brother Bailey, her grandmother Momma Henderson, and her Uncle Willie. Because their parents are getting divorced, Maya and Bailey are sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother. The move away from her parents and to a new place accounts for some of Maya’s sense of not belonging. She also has little chance to interact with other children, for she is expected to work in the general store that her grandmother runs.

Maya’s grandmother, Momma Henderson, is a resourceful woman. She has transformed her place of business from a lunch counter to a general merchandise store, which serves everyone in town. Many of her customers are laborers, such as cotton pickers, who work extremely hard for very little pay. When they come into the store in the early morning hours, they are smiling and hopeful; when they return in the evening, they appear the be defeated souls. Even as a child, Maya realizes their level of poverty and the injustice of their hard work. As a result, the adult Maya rages against the stereotype of happy, song-singing cotton pickers.



Two years later Maya and Bailey are studying at the Lafayette County Training School and work hard on their studies. They are also made to behave at home, being disciplined by Uncle Willie, who usually sits "like a giant black Z." Willie’s face is always pulled down on one side from paralysis that has affected him since the age of three.

One day Maya observes Uncle Willie in the presence of two schoolteachers from Little Rock who do not know him; she realizes he is pretending not to be crippled. When Willie notices Maya, he sends her outside to play. She realizes that Uncle Willie may be tired of his disabled life.

Maya has developed a love of literature, having discovered Shakespeare, Kipling, Poe, Butler, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du Bois, and other writers. She and Bailey decide to memorize a passage from The Merchant of Venice but change their minds because Momma will know that Shakespeare is white. Instead, they choose to learn The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.


This chapter develops the character of Uncle Willie, a proud, but "unlucky cripple." Although he is a strict disciplinarian whom Maya and Bailey regard with fear and sympathy, he is really a sensitive man.

Uncle Willie was not born paralyzed; when he was a baby, a lady taking care of him dropped him. It is obvious that he has some shame about his disability, for he tries to hide his being crippled from the schoolteachers from Little Rock. With wisdom beyond her years, the young Maya realizes that her uncle longs to be whole, even if only for a day in front of strangers.

The chapter also gives more information about Maya and Bailey. They attend a county school. Maya is a good student who has developed a love of literature. She thinks about memorizing some of Shakespeare, but decides against it, for Momma would not approve since he was a white man. Instead, Maya and Bailey decide to memorize the poetry of James Weldon Johnson, a black writer.

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Free BookNotes

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