I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapter 35 Summary & Analysis

Maya, as it typical of a teenage girl, becomes interested in sex and sexuality. One night she confesses to her mother—with great difficulty—that she believes something is “growing” on her vagina. She explains what she’s noticed, and her mother sits her down and has her read about female anatomy in the encyclopedia. Maya is deeply relieved to realize she has been experiencing normal sexual maturation—she confides in her mother that she thought she was becoming a lesbian. This makes Mother laugh, but not in a mean way. Marguerite feels relieved and comforted.
Though Maya has broadened her horizons recently she still knows a strikingly small amount about sex, sexuality, and femininity. She thinks “lesbianism” is some kind of disease one develops over time, and she is frightened by her own sexual maturation. Recall that Momma instilled feelings of shame in Maya regarding her womanhood. Vivien counteracts this teaching by approaching sex with honesty, openness, and even some levity.
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However, some weeks later, Maya has a friend sleep over and catches sight of her breasts while she is changing. She feels moved in some way by the sight of it, and worries again that she is attracted to women. She decides she needs to have sex with a man, and propositions a boy who lives down the street. He agrees, and they have awkward, unromantic intercourse. Maya doesn’t feel different afterwards, and still questions her own sexuality. Three weeks later, however, things do change: Maya discovers she is pregnant.
Maya is still frightened of being sexually different—which is understandable, given how race and gender have ostracized her before. She views lesbianism as yet another thing that could result in her victimization, and though she clearly doesn’t really understand what the word means, she sets about trying to “correct” it by having sex with a male neighbor. Maya’s fear of what she considers “lesbianism” results from her lifelong struggle with racial and sexual oppression.
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