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

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Fearing the prejudice in Stamps, Momma decides it is time for her grandchildren to return to their parents in California. She makes many sacrifices and saves every extra nickel and penny to have enough for their fares. Not wanting to explain to them the real reason for her decision, Momma tells Maya and Bailey that she and Uncle Willie are getting too old to care for them.

A few weeks prior to Momma’s decision, Bailey had a horrifying encounter. One day he passed a group of black men standing around a corpse. Bailey helped the men pick up the body. As a cruel joke, a white man locked the blacks up with the corpse. Bailey could not understand what the joke was all about, for to him death was no laughing matter. When Bailey told Uncle Willie about the incident, he asked why white people hate blacks so much. Uncle Willie replied that they just did not know them.

Momma does not want Bailey and Maya to endure the "humorless puzzle of inequality and hate" any longer. As soon as she has enough money saved, she departs for San Francisco with her granddaughter. Maya’s only regret at leaving Stamps is the loss of her friend Louise and her separation from Bailey. A month later, Bailey also goes to California.


When Momma tells her grandchildren that she is going to send them to their parents in California, Maya senses that the real reason for sending them away has little to do with Momma’s advancing age and inability to look after them.

Bailey’s encounter with white prejudice and hatred is chilling. It is hard for him, or the reader, to understand how a human being can treat other human beings so cruelly simply because of the color of their skin. When the reader learns about Bailey’s experience, it is obvious that Momma is sending her children to California to get them away from the horrible racism in Stamps. She loves her grandchildren too much to allow them to be destroyed by the southern mentality.



Maya does not actually think about seeing her mother again until the last day of the journey. Then her old hurts come back like a "much-missed friend," and she wonders if Mr. Freeman’s name will be mentioned. Maya is reluctant to meet her mother at the station, much like "a sinner is reluctant to meet his Maker." When she spies Mother Dear, she is "smaller than memory would have her but more glorious than any recall."

Maya, Momma, and Bailey, who joins them a month later, stay in Los Angeles and are occasionally visited by Daddy Bailey, while Vivian returns to San Francisco to arrange for her abruptly enlarged family. Momma adjusts admirably to a place that has white landlords, Mexican neighbors, and Negro strangers. She shops in places bigger than the town she comes from and traverses the maze of Spanish named streets though she has never before been more than fifty miles from her birthplace. But once arrangements are made for Maya and Bailey, Momma prepares to go back to Stamps.

Alone with their mother at last, both Maya and Bailey seem happy even though their life is very different. They stay in crowded quarters with the Baxters in an apartment near a railway line, and on Sundays they go to the movies instead of church. At school, no one encourages them or questions their output. They attend midnight parties with their wild and beautiful mother, who is honest enough to tell them that she earns a living by gambling. She also reveals that she shot her business partner for calling her a "bitch" when she confronted him for not shouldering his portion of the responsibility.

Soon after the start of World War II, Vivian marries a successful businessman named Clidell, who is the first real father Maya has had. The four of them move to their own place, leaving behind the Baxter family.


Life is very different for Maya and Bailey in California, but they adjust. The wild and beautiful Vivian is also very different in her lifestyle and approach to child rearing than the conservative and religious Momma. When her children ask her what she does for a living, Vivian tells the truth. She explains that she is a gambler, but she is proud of the fact that she never cheats.

Probably because of the responsibility of having a family again, Vivian remarries. Her new husband, a businessman referred to as Daddy Clidell, proves to be a good father for both Maya and Bailey. He moves the four of them to their own place in San Francisco.

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

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