I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou Character Analysis

Maya Angelou is the narrator of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the memoir tracks her life from the early years of her childhood, when she was called Marguerite Johnson. Maya has always been a smart, inquisitive person with a passion for spoken and written language. She tells the story of how racial and sexual discrimination and violence shaped her childhood and young adulthood. These experiences come to incite and inform her interest in literary studies; in many ways I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the story of how and why Angelou became a poet.

Maya Angelou Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings quotes below are all either spoken by Maya Angelou or refer to Maya Angelou. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Bantam Books edition of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1993.
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:

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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:

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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:

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In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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Chapter 15 Quotes

It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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Chapter 18 Quotes

Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness. It was better to be meek and lowly…than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Henry Reed
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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Chapter 25 Quotes

I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret world which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 27 Quotes

The Japanese were not whitefolks…since they didn’t have to be feared, neither did they have to be considered.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 28 Quotes

Miss Kirwin never seemed to notice that I was Black and therefore different.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Kirwin
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Maya Angelou Character Timeline in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The timeline below shows where the character Maya Angelou appears in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
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The prologue tells a story about Marguerite in church on Easter, performing in a play. She is wearing a dress that she’d... (full context)
Chapter 1
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
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Marguerite and her brother Bailey arrive in Stamps, Arkansas when Marguerite is three and Bailey is... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Marguerite and Bailey’s grandmother, whom they call Momma, has owned a store for 25 years. The... (full context)
Chapter 2
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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...he is especially dark skinned and crippled, and is victimized by both blacks and whites. Marguerite can only remember one time where Willie, usually sensitive and honest, pretended not to be... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
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During these early years in Stamps, Marguerite “met and fell in love with William Shakespeare.” She feels as though Shakespeare understands her,... (full context)
Chapter 3
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Marguerite loves the store—it is her favorite place to be as a child. She is intelligent,... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
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...“the boys” would be in town tonight. “The boys” are actually the Ku Klux Klan. Marguerite is filled with loathing for the sheriff, who rides away jauntily as though he has... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Bailey, Marguerite’s brother, is the “greatest person in her world.” Where Marguerite perceives herself to be ugly... (full context)
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...know, though, that white people are powerful and dangerous and associated with feelings of dread. Maya can remember not really believing white people were real. She thinks they can’t be real—their... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...Reverend often comes to visit Momma at the house, and she always welcomes him, but Marguerite hates him. She doesn’t know why exactly—she just hates him in the irrational way that... (full context)
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...seat, evades the ushers, and pursues the Reverend again. Bailey keeps whispering “preach it!” to Marguerite, and she can barely contain her laughter. Sister Monroe finally reaches the Reverend, and in... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Marguerite sees Momma as one of the strongest and most powerful people in Stamps. She was... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...differences between blacks and whites in Stamps regards how each group elects to spend money. Marguerite perceives whites to live grotesquely lavish lives—blacks do not tend to spend money on readymade... (full context)
Chapter 9
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One year later, when Marguerite is seven years old, Daddy Bailey comes to town. He is a huge, exceptionally handsome... (full context)
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...Vivien, the children are blown away. She is light skinned (“butter colored”) and wears lipstick. Marguerite thinks she is too beautiful to be a mother, and Marguerite bitterly notes that she... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...by the fact that the schools in St. Louis are full of relatively uneducated children. Marguerite and Bailey knew how to count because of their work on the register, and they... (full context)
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One of their mother’s brothers tells Marguerite one day that it doesn’t matter if she isn’t pretty, because she is smart. He... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Marguerite begins sleeping in her mother’s bed because of nightmares. One morning she wakes up after... (full context)
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...tells her that if she ever tells anyone what just happened, he will kill Bailey. Marguerite is frightened, and struggles to understand but agrees to keep the incident a secret from... (full context)
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After a while Marguerite becomes lonesome, and longs to be held gently again. One evening she sits on Mr.... (full context)
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Marguerite starts to spend more and more time at the library—books are a refuge for her.... (full context)
Chapter 12
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One afternoon when Vivien and Bailey are out for the day, Mr. Freeman calls Marguerite over to him. She resists—she has found happiness in the library and doesn’t feel she... (full context)
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Marguerite wanders to the library but finds the seats are too hard and painful for her... (full context)
Chapter 13
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In the hospital Marguerite says if she tells who attacked her, Bailey will be killed. Bailey tells Marguerite no... (full context)
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...outside town. It is likely that Vivien’s brothers killed him. Meanwhile, Vivien also decides that Marguerite and Bailey would be better off in Stamps. Marguerite becomes withdrawn and sullen, and believes... (full context)
Chapter 14
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Momma and Willie treat Marguerite gently upon her return from St. Louis. She wanders about Stamps almost in a daze.... (full context)
Chapter 15
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After a difficult year, in which Marguerite becomes more and more withdrawn, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a neighbor whom Marguerite has always admired,... (full context)
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After this visit, Marguerite comes home and tells Bailey all about it. Then she says “By the way,” and... (full context)
Chapter 16
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Momma decides that Marguerite should learn refined manners, and therefore sends Marguerite to work as a servant in a... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 18
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The family—Momma, Bailey, Marguerite, and Uncle Willy—attends a revivalist meeting—no one ever misses the revivalist meeting, and every congregation... (full context)
Chapter 20
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...is one of the most well attended community events of the year. However, during it, Marguerite grows weary of the crowds of children, and goes into a small grove of trees... (full context)
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That winter, Marguerite receives a love note from Tommy Valdon, who is asking her to be his valentine.... (full context)
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Two days later Marguerite receives another note from Tommy. He says he’d seen her tearing up his last note,... (full context)
Chapter 21
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...tent in the backyard. During these sessions, he brings a girl into the tent, instructs Marguerite to keep watch, and then imitates sex with the girl. It is innocent enough—neither of... (full context)
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Later Bailey proudly tells Marguerite that Joyce has hair between her legs and under her arms because of how many... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Marguerite hates ghost stories and desperately wishes Mr. Taylor would stop talking. She remembers Mrs. Taylor’s... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Marguerite is graduating from the eighth grade. It is a very special occasion, and she enjoys... (full context)
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...or Jesse Owens but says nothing of academic achievement or of possibilities for girls. As Maya Angelou describes it: “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos... (full context)
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Next the valedictorian of Marguerite’s class, a boy named Henry, speaks. He delivers a carefully prepared speech called “To Be... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Marguerite’s love for sweets has finally taken its toll—she has two horrible cavities and the pain... (full context)
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Dr. Lincoln emerges. Momma explains that Marguerite has two rotten teeth and needs them pulled by a dentist. Dr. Lincoln, choosing his... (full context)
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Momma and Marguerite catch a Greyhound to Texarkana where they can see a dentist for blacks. Momma is... (full context)
Chapter 25
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One day Momma tells the children it is time for them to move to California. Marguerite is fairly certain this decision came about because of an incident involving Bailey. He had... (full context)
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Momma has to organize the transportation. She will ride with Marguerite on the train about a month ahead of Bailey, so as to spread out the... (full context)
Chapter 26
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Momma and Marguerite and Bailey live in Los Angeles together while the children adjust to life in California.... (full context)
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Bailey and Marguerite drive to San Francisco with their mother (Vivien). They live in a dingy Oakland apartment.... (full context)
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Marguerite hears that America has declared war on Japan when she is walking home from the... (full context)
Chapter 28
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Marguerite attends an integrated high school, where she is one of only three black students. Here... (full context)
Chapter 29
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...Clidell is a wily con artist who uses white people’s prejudice against them. He teaches Marguerite how to play cards and tells her stories of how he and his associates play... (full context)
Chapter 30
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Marguerite goes to visit Daddy Bailey in southern California, where she meets his live-in girlfriend Dolores... (full context)
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One night Marguerite goes with her father to a fiesta across the border in Mexico with several of... (full context)
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...world, until she crashes into another vehicle. At first the police officers are suspicious of Marguerite, but when they understand the situation, are sympathetic. During the commotion Big Bailey comes to,... (full context)
Chapter 31
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That night, Marguerite feels bad for Dolores when she comes home. Dolores had waited all night for Big... (full context)
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Marguerite is bleeding from her side, and when her father sees her, she explains (with some... (full context)
Chapter 32
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Maya (who begins to identify herself as such—this new name comes from a nickname Bailey gave... (full context)
Chapter 33
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...each other away only to apologize and reestablish good relations and restart the whole process. Maya knows that eventually Bailey will leave, and one night she overhears a great fight during... (full context)
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Bailey moves to a motel. After a while, Maya goes to visit Bailey in his dingy motel room to offer him support. He insists... (full context)
Chapter 34
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Maya decides that she can’t stay at home all day with nothing to do over winter... (full context)
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When Maya’s high school classes resume in the spring at California Labor School, Maya becomes disenchanted with... (full context)
Chapter 35
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Maya, as it typical of a teenage girl, becomes interested in sex and sexuality. One night... (full context)
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However, some weeks later, Maya has a friend sleep over and catches sight of her breasts while she is changing.... (full context)
Chapter 36
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Maya hides her pregnancy from everyone, though she avoids lying outright about it. Though her body... (full context)
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...be okay, and buy her maternity clothes. Three months later, after a rather easy labor, Maya’s son is born. She is terrified to touch him, afraid she will hurt him. After... (full context)