notes on maya angelou's "i know why the caged bird sings"

2021-03-21

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~8 min read

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1535 words

Select passages from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that resonated.

On prudence and privilege

We were among the few Negro families not on relief, but Bailey and I were the only children in the town proper that we know that who ate powdered eggs every day and drank the powdered milk. Pg. 51

Maya’s family was one of the most well-off in Stamps, yet, they achieved that status through prudence of her grandmother - which meant, as in the case illustrated here, that they went without while their neighbors did not. (Their neighbors traded the powdered eggs for more desirable items.)

On small town privacy (or lack thereof)

In Stamps teachers were much friendlier, but that was because they were imported from Arkansas Negro colleges, and since we had no hotels or rooming houses in town, they had to live with private families. If a lady teacher took company, or didn’t receive any mail or cried alone in her room at night, by the weeks’ end even the children discussed her morality, her loneliness and her other failings generally. It would have been near impossible to maintain formality under a small town’s invasion of privacy. Pg. 64

On role models

I read more than ever, and wished my soul that I had been born a boy. Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I could have developed the first two virtues, but becoming a boy was sure to be difficult, if not impossible. Pg. 75

On compartmentalization

Grandmother Baxter said, “Ritie and Junior, you didn’t hear a thing. I never want to hear this situation nor that evil man’s name mentioned in my house again. I mean that.” She went back into the kitchen to make apple strudel for my celebration. Pg. 87

On how voice infuses words with meaning

“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” Pg. 98

On lessons in living

As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. Thats ome people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. Pg. 99

On the power of words

Momma wouldn’t talk right then, but later in the evening I found that my violation lay in using the phrase “by the way.” Momma explained that “jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light,” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house. Pg. 103

On names, power, and dignity

Then one evening Miss Glory told me to serve the ladies on the porch. After I set the tray down and turned toward the kitchen, one of the women asked, “What’s your name, girl?” It was the speckled-faced one. Mrs. Cullinan said, “She doesn’t talk much. Her name’s Margaret.”
“Is she dumb?”
“No. As I understand it, she can talk when she wants to but she’s usually quiet as a little mouse. Aren’t you, Margaret?”
I smiled at her. Poor thing. No organs and couldn’t even pronounce my name correctly.
“She’s a sweet little thing, though.”
“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.”
> […]
The very next day, she called me by the wrong name. Miss Glory and I were washing up the lunch dishes when Mrs. Cullinan came to the doorway. “Mary”
Miss Glory asked, “Who?”
Mrs. Cullinan, sagging a little, knew and I knew. “I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days.”
Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret, ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”
“That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the china tureen and, Mary, I want you to carry it carefully.”
Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks.
Miss Glory had a fleeting second of feeling sorry for me. Then as she handed me the hot tureen she said, “Don’t mind, don’t pay that no mind. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words… You know, I been working here for twenty years.”
She held the back door open for me. “Twenty years. I wasn’t much older than you. My name used to be Hallelujah. That’s what Ma named me, but my mistress give me ‘Glory,’ and it stuck. I likes it better too.”
I was in the path that ran behind the houses when Miss Glory shouted, “It’s shorter too.”
For af ew seconds it was a tossup over whether I would laugh (imagine being named Hallelujah) or cry (imagine lettings ome white woman rename you for her convenience). My anger saved me from either outburst. I had to quite the job, but the problem was going to be how to do it. Momma wouldn’t allow me to quit for just any reason. Pg. 107-109

Maya’s experience working for Mrs. Cullinan was one of the passages that affected me most. Lots to unpack and ruminate on here, particularly as it relates to power differentials and human dignity.

On responsibility

Momma could not take the smallest achievement for granted. People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed. Pg. 127

On the necessary ingredients for sympathy

A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and alter in sharecroppers’ cabins. But the sensations of common relationship were missing. Pg. 209

On right and wrong

It wasn’t possible for me to regard them as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements.
The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is the man who is offered only the crumbs from his country’s table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feat. Hence the janitor who lives in one room but sports a robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac is not laughed at but admired, and the domestic who buys forty-dollar shoes is not criticized but appreciated. We know that they have put to use their full mental and physical powers. Each single gain feeds into the gains of the body collective. Pg. 224

On exchanging youth for knowledge

I reasoned that I had given up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable than the loss. Pg. 256

On weaving a tale

Sitting at a side table my mind and I wove a cat’s ladder of near truths and total lies. I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas. Pg. 269

On the particular burdens of the Black female

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. Pg. 272

On the prerequisites of dishonesty

In order to be profoundly dishonest, a person must have one of two qualities: either he is unscrupulously ambitious, or he is unswervingly egocentric. He must believe that for his ends to be served all things and people can justifiably be shifted about, or that he is the center not only of his own world but of the worlds which others inhabit. I had neither element in my personality, so I hefted the burden of pregnancy at sixteen onto my own shoulders where it belonged. Admittedly, I staggered under the weight. Pg. 284


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