I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Themes and Colors
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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The memoir explores the complexity of familial bonds and the importance of family to a person’s experiences and identity. Maya and Bailey’s relationship is in many ways at the center of the book. Young Marguerite loves her brother so dearly and trusts him so implicitly that she confides in him first about her attack. The children often have to cope with feelings of abandonment since they were sent away by their parents to live with their grandmother at a young age, and are sent away again after Marguerite’s attack. Marguerite in particular—who bears no physical resemblance to her mother or father—wonders if her parents are in fact related to her. When Mr. Freeman assaults Marguerite for the first time, she is uncomfortable and confused but so desiring of parental affection that she interprets his actions as tenderness, and wonders if Mr. Freeman is her real father. Marguerite also learns to form familial bonds outside of her own biological family. Mrs. Flowers’ mentorship of Marguerite is another huge source of comfort and support.

The picture of family ties described by this memoir is a complicated one: family can be a source of rejection, confusion and pain, but is also an indispensable source of love and support.

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Family Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Below you will find the important quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings related to the theme of Family.
Chapter 3 Quotes

It seemed that the peace of day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes, and the crippled was still in effect.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Uncle Willie
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelou’s exploration of the Black community’s rhythms of daily life in Stamps, shaped by their visits to her grandmother’s store and their difficult days of manual labor, describes early morning and nighttime as periods of rest so deeply needed that they might be sacred. At the same time, though, Angelou writes with definite sarcasm; the grouping of “children, Negroes, and the crippled” highlights the ridiculousness of the pairing in the first place – the equating of black people with children and cripples – and in so doing shows how such a grouping emerges from white paternalism (and not from Angelou’s God himself).

Throughout the book, Angelou suggests that the white community’s stereotypes of black people (often referred to as Negroes here) are both true and not. When they are true, they’re usually true for the wrong reasons. The Black community in Stamps holds sacred these periods of evening rest, but not because of any connection between black people and children or cripples.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

When I was described by our playmates as being shit color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin…And yet he loved me.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

The brother-sister relationship between Maya and Bailey is central to this book. In other contexts a passage like this might signal jealousy on Maya’s part; she is treated poorly for her tone of black skin, and Bailey is “lauded” for it. But here, amidst all of Maya’s admiration for and amazement at her brother Bailey, there is little room for jealousy. Angelou uses two very different but equally powerful descriptors for their blackness: “shit color” for her, and “velvet-black” for Bailey.

In these descriptions Angelou unflinchingly takes on the language of her detractors, forcing the reader to feel some of the pain Maya might be feeling. Interestingly, at the end of this passage, Angelou writes: “And yet he loved me.” We might expect it to be the other way around: even though Maya is made fun of for her skin color and Bailey admired or his, she is able to forgive him and love him, and so on. But the fact that Maya feels the need to earn Bailey’s love despite her supposedly “shit color” skin shows us how deep the child Maya’s shame runs.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In reading this passage, it helps to have a sense of how ardently Maya Angelou worked, throughout her career, to tell new types of stories about blackness and being black in the United States. This quotation clearly emerges in retrospect, as Angelou reflects on the ways Momma held her and Bailey within the safe confines of relative black success as sanctioned by white society. In this passage we find both sympathy for Momma’s beliefs and a real desire to surpass them, to live radically outside of what could be considered “safe” because it wouldn’t offend any of the power-holding white people on the other side of Stamps and the other side of the country.

Momma wants Maya and Bailey to pray diligently, work hard, respect authority; mostly she wants them to keep their heads down. Angelou ends up doing the opposite, of course, writing and publishing a book about her life in Stamps and beyond. So, in many ways, this book is both an affirmation of Momma’s ways (which are described in detail, with respect for the necessity of survival in a world very dangerous to black women) and a piece of tangible evidence that Angelou has exceeded the bounds placed around her.

Chapter 11 Quotes

He held me so softly I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mr. Freeman
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of being sexually assaulted by Mr. Freeman, Maya finds peace in the sensation of being held by him. This is one of the most vivid and disturbing sequences in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Maya’s utter confusion about what is happening to Mr. Freeman’s body and what he might be doing to her is captured most effectively in this moment. Mr. Freeman has just finished masturbating against Maya’s body, and knowing this the reader cannot help but wince at the intimacy of their embrace. But Maya, who has not yet connected the wetness in the bed to Mr. Freeman’s anatomy, is comforted simply by his close physical presence.

Throughout the early chapters of this book, we can feel Maya searching for intimacy from adults— this makes sense given that her story begins with her and Bailey’s abandonment by their parents. Maya feels “at home” when Mr. Freeman holds her. And so with characters like Mr. Freeman and Mrs. Flowers Maya seems to be searching deeply for someone to hold her, emotionally or physically. The trouble comes when an adult— in this case Mr. Freeman— capitalizes on Maya’s earnest wish for closeness by causing her harm.

Chapter 17 Quotes

The Black woman in the south who raises sons, grandsons, and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this startling passage, Angelou ties the common imagery of “heartstrings” to the uniquely black horror of the “hanging noose.” This shift from a universal image to a very particular one conveys the specificity of Angelou’s claim: it is the southern black woman— and these are the three core aspects of Maya’s political reality— who feels this unique pain of knowing that her son, grandson, and nephew could be killed for just about any sort of infraction, legitimate or not, like Bailey’s failure to return home by sundown. Black men are in unique danger, which puts their family members in a unique state of fear. It is tragic then, in a way, to be a black woman— bound to fear most deeply for the ones she loves.

I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother…and it was funny to think of the whitefolks’ not knowing that.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mother (Vivien Baxter)
Page Number: 118-119
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspired by Bailey’s earlier insistence that a white actress in a movie he sees looks exactly like their mother, Maya sees the actress in another film a few months later. This is one of a few moments in this book when humor (and sometimes laughter) takes over— and, like the moment in church when Maya cannot control her laughter, this one is caused by something Bailey says. Her brother is one of the great sources of humor in her youth, and here it is funny because Bailey ends up spot-on about the resemblance between their mother and the white actress.

To Maya, it is hilarious to think that the “whitefolks” could “not know” something as shocking as the fact that a black woman (and a non-famous one at that) could look as good as a famous white actress. Humor and interior monologue often give Maya a way break from the way other people see her and her blackness and see things in a radically new way; in this case, the realization isn’t so much that black women can be beautiful, but that white people either don’t know how beautiful they can be or won’t acknowledge it. Put another way, Maya has discovered how white people’s own arrogance can make them blind and be a kind of weakness.

Chapter 19 Quotes

It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis has proved that we were the strongest people in the world.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

When Joe Louis finally does win, it is a victory for the black community tainted by the fear that any form of celebration over Louis’ win could bring about retaliatory violence in the southern white community. Angelou elucidates some of the symbolism behind Louis’ victory, the reason it would have been so devastating— a groan for Angelou’s entire race— had Louis lost: his victory was to prove that black people were the strongest in the world. Louis, somehow able to bear the weight of this task, demonstrates at least in Maya’s eyes that blackness and success would have to be recognized as compatible by the white community. Admitting this would be scary for a society so bent on proving the inferiority of black people, hence the threat of violence against anyone celebrating Louis’ big win.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s”

Related Characters: Dr. Lincoln (speaker), Maya Angelou , Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The strangeness for Maya of hearing anyone speak to Momma the way Dr. Lincoln does is marked first by the jarring “Annie” he calls her by. It is unfamiliar to Maya, and to the reader who has encountered mostly “Momma” for almost two hundred pages. The “Annie” captures how Dr. Lincoln sees Momma as inferior to him, as someone he has the right to call by her first name.

And then comes the brutal excuse, complete with racist epithet, that Dr. Lincoln offers for not treating Maya’s rotten teeth: he’d rather touch a dog’s mouth than a black person’s. Of course this is hurtful language, for Momma and especially for Maya, but the real tragedy is that this type of speech is culturally sanctioned; and so any white public figure, like a dentist, can openly abuse black people without any consequences, and can do so in “legal” language and refer to their own racism as a kind of “policy.” The black people being abused meanwhile, have to simply take the abuse or risk death for any sort of self-defense.

Chapter 29 Quotes

The Black man, the con man who could act the most stupid, won out every time against the powerful, arrogant white.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Daddy Clidell
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

As we’ve seen her do before in this book, Angelou turns assumptions about whiteness and blackness on their heads so that they become something of an advantage for black people (who otherwise suffer under these stereotypes). Whether or not Angelou thinks a con man’s success is a real victory, the point remains the same: if you’re going to label us with this set of identities, we’ll find a way to make them work better than yours.

This pertains also to the major victory of Joe Louis earlier in the book; Louis, carrying all the stereotypes of black male violence and bestiality, turns them into boxing glory. With that in mind, note that the black man described in this quotation is only acting stupid and that, when it comes to white people, power and arrogance are lined up next to each other as their defining traits. The black con man uses white power and arrogance to benefit himself.

Chapter 36 Quotes

I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the very last line of the book. It is both a pleasant, life-affirming image to end on, and also something more than that. Maya’s soft pat of her son contrasts sharply with the many forms of violence inflicted on her body throughout the novel, from the way Momma beats her for minor infractions to the jarring acts of sexual abuse and rape committed by Mr. Freeman. It is a form of bodily contact that conveys not fear or pain but closeness, kindness, care, and love. It is also a comforting gesture toward her child, of the type we might have wished for Maya as we read our way through her own childhood.

Without being too heavy-handed or at all sentimental, Angelou’s last line suggests that Maya— her character and perhaps. at the same time, herself— is at least somewhat settled in her life. She has a son, seems good at taking care of him, and drifts off to sleep, offering a natural close to the novel that tracks her circadian rhythms and reminds us of the daily rhythms of her black community back in Stamps, showing up at Momma’s store before spending another day at work in the fields. That Maya is able to sleep, and tells us so, signals that she is relatively comfortable and at ease in this life she describes so vividly. Readers, like Maya herself, can breathe a bit easier for Maya after reliving her struggle with her, and look to the future with hope.