Free Study Guide for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: Book Summary|
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Momma is a strong character, who lives by her fundamental religious beliefs. As a black woman in Stamps, she has incredible power. The owner of a successful business, she manages to have financial freedom. She even loans money to both white and black people during the Depression.
Momma has two sons. Uncle Willie, who has been paralyzed from a young age, lives with her in Stamps. Maya’s father, Bailey, left Stamps long ago and married the beautiful, but wild, Vivian. The couple has two children, Maya and her older brother Bailey. When Vivian and Daddy Bailey divorce, Momma agrees to take the children. She is devoted to the two of them, even though she is not demonstrative with her love. When she feels it is dangerous for Maya and Bailey to stay in Stamps because of prejudice and persecution inflicted on the blacks, she saves her money and takes them back to their father in California. It is an act of sacrifice and love.
Through most of the book, Maya believes her grandmother is all powerful. When Momma goes in to confront the white dentist who refuses to treat Maya’s rotten tooth, Maya imagines her as a superhero who will get the best of the evil man; however, when Momma succeeds only in extracting ten dollars from the dentist rather than in convincing him to treat her granddaughter, Maya begins to realize that she is not able to accomplish all things. She knows, however, that Momma is one of the most positive influences in her life.
Bailey is Maya’s older brother, guide, confidante, and mentor. Through most of the book, she idolizes him, calling Bailey her "Kingdom Come." Maya keeps no secrets from her brother, whom she trusts completely. In return for her trust, Bailey serves as Maya’s protector. When Maya is raped by Mr. Freeman, it is only Bailey that she tells. Bailey is so upset at the news that he actually cries. He then tells their uncles about what has happened. Mr. Freeman is later found beaten to death.
When Bailey is reunited with his mother, he is enamored with her. He thinks that she is the most beautiful and charming woman in the world. Even when Vivian refuses to be a mother to Maya and Bailey, he stands by her; and when he is away from her he is miserable. At the end of the book, Maya realizes that Bailey is caught in an "oedipal skein." When he is with Vivian, he constantly fights with her; but he cannot stay away.
Vivian, however, finally kicks him out when he takes up with a white prostitute. In the end, she helps Bailey to get a job with the railroad.
Maya’s ever absent father is a tall, handsome man, who speaks proper English. He is a dietician for the navy and has also worked as a doorman, but the airs he puts on makes Maya think that he should live in a manor house with huge grounds and servants to wait on him. In actuality, Bailey is a vain, conceited man, whose selfishness is sometimes very detrimental to Maya and his son Bailey, Jr.
During the book, Daddy Bailey proves he is an immature and irresponsible man. He lives with his young girlfriend, who is not much older than Maya. He then pits the two women against one another. To make Dolores jealous, Daddy Bailey takes Maya to Mexico with him, saying it will give her a chance to practice her Spanish. While in Mexico, he crudely suggests to the border guard that he marry Maya. He also gets drunk and passes out in the back seat of the car, forcing Maya to drive when she does not know how. When Daddy Bailey and Maya return home, Dolores, out of jealousy and revenge, stabs Maya with a pair of scissors. Daddy Bailey, too proud to let anyone know what has happened, does not take Maya to a hospital for treatment; instead, he takes her to a neighbor’s and dresses her wounds. His insensitivity to Maya is a main cause of her deciding to run away. When she leaves, Daddy Bailey does not even bother to tell her mother that she has left.
Daddy Bailey is a flat character, never rising above his own self-concern and conceit to care for someone else. It is because of his absence in Maya’s life that she turns to Freeman for paternal affection, which tragically leads to her rape. In the end, Daddy Clidell, who is Vivian’s second husband, is more a father to Maya that Daddy Bailey could ever be.
Vivian is the beautiful, street-smart mother of Maya and Bailey. Her divorce from Daddy Bailey prompts her to send the children away to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps. Vivian is so unconcerned about the children’s welfare that she does not even bother to keep in touch with them for several years.
When Maya and Bailey are finally reunited with Vivian, they are so enamored with her beauty that they do not realize she is incapable of being a real mother. She fails both children in many ways. Her greatest failure is not coming home at night to care for the children. It is during one of Vivian’s overnight escapades that Mr. Freeman rapes Maya. When Maya retreats into silence after the rape, Vivian is incapable of dealing with it. She promptly sends Maya back to Stamps to live with Momma.
Vivian redeems herself to some degree in the latter part of the book. She marries Daddy Clidell, a successful businessman who treats Maya and Bailey kindly. She also rescues her daughter from the runaway junkyard commune when Maya contacts her. Back in San Francisco, she challenges Maya to think for herself and make her own decision about staying in school. She also disciplines Bailey when he takes up with a white prostitute. By kicking him out of the house, she forces him to grow up. She then helps him get a job with the railroad. Finally, Vivian stands by Maya when she learns that she is pregnant and supports her decision not to marry the father.
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. 09 May 2017