I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
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.
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon

This memoir is also an account of how sex and gender influence experience and identity. Marguerite recognizes that being a girl is a kind of disadvantage, and wishes occasionally that she had been born a boy. The novels she reads have men and boys as their heroes and protagonists, so she believes that to be a hero one must be male. Marguerite also feels pressure to be feminine and attractive, and is tormented by her own “ugliness” for much of her childhood.

Marguerite’s rape at the hands of Mr. Freeman—and her struggle to recover, both physically and emotionally—are at the center of a discussion about sex, gender, and violence. Marguerite feels guilty and responsible for her own rape. She had been told by her grandmother to always “keep her legs closed” and she believes her rape is evidence of her own promiscuity. Her relationship with sex and sexuality are complicated by this event, and the text is an account of how she learns to navigate her own sexuality after being victimized.

In many ways, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an investigation of how inequality—both racial and sexual—shape experience and identity. The memoir records the experience of a black woman’s life in America, and her womanhood—like her blackness—inevitably shapes and informs her experience.

Get the entire Caged Bird Sings LitChart as a printable PDF.
I know why the caged bird sings.pdf.medium

Sex, Gender and Sexuality 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 Sex, Gender and Sexuality.
Prologue Quotes

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the conclusion to her vividly imagined prologue, Angelou highllights the pain and displacement that shape much of the book. She takes as her premise the pain of growing up as a “Southern Black girl,” making it clear that she’ll be focusing on three core parts of her identity as a writer and as a character within her own autobiographical fiction: her Southernness, her Blackness, and her gender.

Further, Angelou concludes, it is the Southern Black girl’s awareness of her displacement that makes this pain not only sharp but maybe even dangerous. Angelou’s book looks closely at all sorts of regional, racialized, and gendered traumas; with this in mind, we might see this quotation as a statement of purpose for her book. But the rusted knife of pain and displacement is only the starting point for Angelou, and the book proceeds in a life-giving direction too.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
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.

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 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 looks like Joe Louis is going down.” My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through the slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe Louis, one of the most famous and successful black boxers, seems likely to lose the heavyweight championship while everyone listens on the radio in Momma’s store. Angelou captures the tragedy of another loss for black society by putting Louis’ defeat in the same category as the terrible (and terribly violent) things black people had to live through in the segregated South. All sorts of racial violence, like the violence of Louis’ boxing defeat, are evoked here: lynching, ambush, rape, whipping, the chasing of slaves, the abuse of black servants. Louis’ loss is a huge disappointment for “my race,” Angelou tells us. It is another invalidation, another form of violence to the spirit.

Chapter 23 Quotes

The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Edward Donleavy
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In another adeptly crafted and very funny passage turning cultural assumptions about blackness and womanhood on their heads, Angelou shows us how her racial shame could be triggered at any moment— even a celebratory one, like at her eighth-grade graduation. Mr. Donleavy, the white speaker from Arkansas, encourages the black boys at Maya’s school to take as their models Jesse Owens and Joe Louis (Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist runner, and Louis a world champion boxer).

Not only is it disappointing that Donleavy mentions nothing of the black girls, but as Maya notices these are not the same role models Donleavy would probably mention at a white graduation. In white culture, we’d expect to hear about great scientists like Galileo or Madame Curie, or great artists like the painter Gauguin, at most eighth-grade graduations. So Donleavy’s intrusion on black Alabama is further marked by his failure to encourage black boys to be anything besides good athletes (which implies his belief that black boys can’t hope to have good minds), and his failure to even acknowledge the future possibilities of black girls (implying his belief that black girls have nothing of importance to offer at all).

Chapter 34 Quotes

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste, and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

There’s a standard novel formation called the bildungsroman in which a young character (usually a white male) grows up and goes out into the world seeking to do or achieve something. In this passage, and really throughout the book, Angelou makes it clear that in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings she’s writing her own “American Negro female” sort of bildungsroman. Because the black woman’s development of a “formidable character” is far from the standard narrative promoted by Angelou’s society, it is shocking and even “distasteful” to people in more privileged positions.

Yet, as Angelou says, it is the standard narrative, the “inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors.” If you can make it through an “American Negro female” youth and early adulthood, Angelou suggests, you’re bound to end up formidable. The word “struggle”is one possible summary of what Angelou has written about to this point, but in a sense it is inadequate; so the whole book has, in a way, elucidated this struggle and prepared us for this big statement, one of Angelou’s more politically clear pronouncements throughout her book.

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.