I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Everyone in Stamps follows certain rules of decorum, except for “powhitetrash” children, who behave in ways that astound Marguerite. They are unkempt and dirty, and they call Uncle Willie by his first name even though he is their elder. One afternoon a group of powhitetrash children comes down the street toward Momma’s house. Marguerite is nervous and Momma tells her to go inside the house; Marguerite obeys, but listens and watches from the door.
“Powhitetrash” (Poor white trash) children do not have the stature or sophistication of many of the black adults in Stamps, but simply because they are white, they still treat blacks as inferior. Though their moniker (“powhitetrash”) makes them seem pathetic, they still make Marguerite nervous; their whiteness is a threat.
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The children harass Momma, who sings a hymn. They “ape” her—which involves doing a degrading kind of monkey dance. Momma keeps singing. They call her Annie, which makes Marguerite furious. One of the girls does a handstand in her dress, and her skirts come up and expose her nakedness to Momma. They grow bored and say goodbye, and Momma says goodbye to them respectfully, calling them “Miz.” Marguerite is furious and doesn’t know how Momma could stand to call them “miz” after they did such things to her. But Marguerite can also tell that some battle had taken place, and that Momma had won.
This is a scene about maintaining dignity in the face of overwhelming degradation. Momma endures the racist and dehumanizing behaviors of the children (which happens when Momma is standing on her own front porch) and steadily sings a hymn—she finds refuge in faith and worship. Though Marguerite is furious that Momma treats the children so respectfully, she also understands that, by keeping her composure and remaining polite, Momma has prevailed over the children’s racist cruelty.
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