I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

One day, Bailey, who has become more surly and unhappy after being sent away from his mother yet again, doesn’t come back from the movies before sun down. Maya, as narrator of the memoir, explains that to be the caretaker of a black boy in the South means that you must always fear the worst if your boy doesn’t return home on time. Momma and Marguerite walk down to the end of the lane to wait for Bailey. After an agonizingly long time, Bailey arrives, unapologetic and sullen. Marguerite is confused and wishes her brother would show contrition for making them worry. That night Willie whips Bailey for what seems to Marguerite like an eternity, but Bailey doesn’t cry.
Bailey’s adolescent self-indulgence and rebellion is normal—he is a young boy who is upset about the apparent loss of his mother. But because Bailey is black, his simple mistake of missing his curfew raises other implications. Black men in the South were in a unique kind of danger—villainized and demonized by white society, they could be lynched at any moment. When Maya has her own son later, she also worries deeply about his safety and vulnerability in society.
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Later Bailey explains to Marguerite that he’d seen Mother at the movies—a white actress that looked exactly like Vivien was in the movie he watched, and he couldn’t resist staying and watching it a second time. He says he will take Marguerite back to the movies and show her. Two months later the actress is in another movie playing in town, and Marguerite is astonished at how striking the resemblance is. She thinks with satisfaction how mad white people would be if they knew their white movie star looked exactly like a black woman. On the way home Bailey tries to jump on a passing freight train so he can ride it to St. Louis and be with his mother.
This is a striking articulation of the displacement Bailey feels—he must remember and feel close to his mother by watching a white movie star who bears a superficial resemblance to her. Once again, home and community are made unavailable, and whiteness finds its way into the center of Bailey’s life, simultaneously seducing him and excluding him. Bailey is not in control of his own destiny. It seems he can only ride the train when he is asked to by someone else.
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