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

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Maya’s days are full. She and Bailey must feed corn to the chickens and mash to the hogs. Maya must also work in the store; but she does not mind the routine chores that she performs there during the day. In fact, she feels totally connected to the store and comfortable with the customers, who often praise her. It is her favorite place in Arkansas. In the evening, Maya and the family often rest, while eating canned sardines and crackers. Because Willie enjoys this time of the day, he does not stutter or shake.

Maya describes her passion for canned pineapples, but she never takes a can for herself from the store. She would consider that stealing, to which she is opposed. She also describes a time when the "used-to-be Sheriff" came to the house. He told them that Willie had better hide because a "nigger" messed with a white lady, and "the boys" would be coming over later. Uncle Willie hid in the vegetable bin to protect himself from the "boys" in the Ku Klux Klan. Maya describes him "like a casserole," covered with onions and potatoes. Seeking God’s protection for Willie and the family, Momma prayed in the darkened store.


From a very early age, Maya reveals her values. Even though she is tempted, she will not take a can of pineapple, which she dearly loves, from the store, for she would consider it stealing. She is also very hard on herself, striving to do a perfect job and punishing herself when she makes mistakes. It is clear that Maya’s values have been influenced by her grandmother, Momma Henderson. She is a religious woman, who comfortably turns to God to answer her prayers.

Maya is also capable of recognizing evil. When the old sheriff refers to "the boys," Maya knows he is talking about the Klan, which she finds abhorrent. She resents that the law enforcement officials in town do nothing to stop the dreaded hooded men. Seeking protection from the Klan, Willie hides in the vegetable bin, and Momma prays for his safety. Although the Klan never arrives at the house, Maya, after many years, still remembers the sound of Willie moaning in the bin and the sense of fear that pervaded the store.



The young Maya is fascinated by a man named Mr. McElroy, the only Negro in Stamps to wear a suit, except for the school principal. All of the other blacks in town are too poor to own one.

Maya is also fascinated by her brother Bailey, whom she believes to be the greatest person in her world, in spite of his stealing pickles. Calling him her "kingdom come," Maya is proud of him for being so good, for praying aloud in church, and for doing more chores than she does. She also thinks that Bailey is extremely handsome, in contrast to her own unattractiveness, and very smart.

Stamps is so well segregated that many black children have never seen a white person. The black people think of the whites with fear, which comes from "the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed." Maya talks about "whitefolks-ville," the segregated portion of town where she and Bailey trespass occasionally to buy fresh meat. She thinks of the crossing over into the white area as "walking without weapons into maneating animals’ territory."


Bailey, who is a year older than Maya, is a mischievous boy, who never seems to get caught. Maya adores her handsome sibling and considers it her good fortune that he loves her in spite of her unattractive looks. When Maya’s elders say unkind things about her to her face, Bailey always stands up for her. Maya knows that Bailey is the pride of the family and is more well liked than she is, but she is not the least bit jealous of him. Instead, she considers him to be her "unshakable god," whom she loves and trusts more than anyone else in life.

Normally, the black people in town eat canned or dried meat. Maya describes how her family cures meat and stores it in the smokehouse and how at least twice a year Bailey and she are sent out to the white part of Stamps to buy fresh meat. When she crosses into "whitefolks-ville," she is always scared. Like all the black children in town, Maya does not like white people, fearing their power. She also thinks that their feet are too small and their skin is too transparent.

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

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