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

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Every three months, Reverend Howard Thomas, the presiding elder of the black church, visits Stamps and stays at the Henderson house. When he arrives, normally after dinner on Saturday evening, he eats the leftovers and gossips with Momma and Willie. Maya and Bailey dislike him because he is ugly and fat, laughs like "a hog with colic," and never remembers their names.

Bailey eavesdrops on what the minister is saying to Momma and Willie. He then repeats the news to Maya. He tells her about Mr. Coley Washington, who has a girl staying with him and who is probably "doing it" to her. He also tells Maya about a man whose "things" had been cut off for "doing it" to a white woman.

On Sunday morning Maya and Bailey are given heavy breakfasts, including fried fish, biscuits, and tomato slices; Momma wants to fill them up so that they will stay quiet in church. Momma asks the Reverend to say grace before they eat; he takes so much time to bless the food that it gets cold.

In church, Reverend Thomas preaches a long sermon from Deuteronomy, Maya’s favorite book in the Bible. During the service, Maya notices Sister Monroe and remembers how she once became hysterical in her religious fervor, shouting "preach it" so loudly that the entire church was thrown into pandemonium.

The mischievous Bailey also sees Sister Monroe. He goes up to her and whispers "preach it" in her ear as a joke. Sister Monroe grows excited at the words and runs to the pulpit. Reverend Thomas, having heard of Sister Monroe’s hysterics, backs away from her, but she grabs him with excitement. The Reverend tries to ignore her and continue preaching, but somehow he has lost his dentures in the encounter with Sister Monroe. Maya and Bailey burst into laughter, in spite of trying hard not to. Both children, after being duly punished for their outbursts, try to be on their best behavior in front of Momma; but for weeks, when they are alone, they break into hysterics when one of the utters the phrase, "Preach it."


Maya and Bailey do not like it when Reverend Thomas comes to their house to stay on Saturday night. They dislike him for not remembering their names. They also dislike him because he is obese and ugly and refuses to treat Bailey like a man, insisting on hugging him instead of shaking his hand. Reverend Thomas is an unusual character. As a thoughtless gossip, he is everything a preacher ought not be.

Shortly after the reverend arrives, the children are sent to their room so the adults can talk in private. The mischievous Bailey, however, eavesdrops on their conversation and learns about the sexual activities that are going on in Stamps. He promptly reports all the news to Maya. Their childlike misunderstanding of sex is delightfully reported, and the phrase "doing it" takes on a personality of its own.

The humor of the chapter continues in church on Sunday morning. Seeing Sister Monroe, Maya remembers the time that she hysterically shouted "preach it" during the service. When Maya reminds her brother of the incident, he cannot resist being mischievous. He goes up to Sister Monroe and whispers "preach it" in her ear. Inspired by the words, Sister Monroe rushes up to the pulpit. Reverend Thomas tries to avoid her but she grabs him. During the incident, the reverend loses his dentures, which causes Maya and Bailey to laugh hard and loudly. When they get home, they are appropriately punished for their outburst in church. Momma will not tolerate poor behavior.

In spite of the humor in the chapter, it is very clear that religion and its teachings are very important to Momma. It is also clear that the church they attend is very fundamental.

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