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Commentary on I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Essay


When Angelou was three and her brother, Bailey, was four, her parents divorced and shipped two young children to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. Confident, strong, and wise, she was Angelous and Baileys first role model- that taught them cleanliness, godliness, and respect for others. Their lives revolved around the store and its customers and the church, which Angelou viewed with a certain amount of doubt. She was a bright child, as was her brother, she learned quickly and did well in the black school she attended. An elegant neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, took Angelou under her wing and taught her to love books. The children adjusted well to life in Stamps, in spite of the prejudice they experienced from and toward whites. They were part of a close, caring community that extended to the bridge that transversed the gap that divided the black and white sections of town. Suddenly one day, the childrens father, Bailey Johnson Sr., arrived in a car and took them to live with their mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, in St. Louis. Through good looks, wits and guts, their mother was able to provide them with a better standard of living. But disaster struck when their mothers boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, seduced and violently raped Maya. After a brief court trial, Freeman was sentenced to jail. He never made it: their mothers brothers beat him to death behind a slaughterhouse. Angelou was hospitalized for her injuries and when she was sent home, she did not talk to smile. After a while, her mother got very upset with her not talking, so she sent her back to her grandmothers where she finally came out of her shell and began to act the way she use to before the accident. After graduating high school, she attended an art school and studied music and dance, tutored in the latter art with dancers Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, and Ann Halprin. She also studied drama with Frank Silvera and Gene Frankel. She became a dancer, playwright, actress, director, singer, poet, composer, and politician. She later served as Northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959 and 1960, and published the first of her autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970. She has won numerous awards for her acting and writing skills. She recited one of her poems at President Clintons first inauguration in 1993 (Novels for Students 134).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings starts off with Marguerite and her brother, Bailey, arriving in Stamps, Arkansas by train to live with their fathers mother. Once arriving in Stamps, the childrens lives are focused around the church, school, and helping Momma and their lame Uncle Willie with the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store. They become accustomed to the everyday ritual of everyone in the black section of town. The children do their lessons and Uncle Willie introduces them to Shakespeare. All of the sudden, their father shows up with no contact and drives Marguerite and Bailey to their mother in St. Louis. Their mother, Vivian Baxter, has been trained as pediatric nurse and lives with her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, but deals cards in order to make money. One morning when Momma was not home, Mr. Freeman approaches Marguerite in a sexual manner. He turns up with volume on the radio and tells her if you scream, Ill kill you. And if you tell, Ill kill Bailey. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel cannot. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot (Novels for Students 135). She was unable to hide her injuries from her mother. Mr. Freeman is tried for his crime and is freed on a technicality, his body is later found behind a slaughterhouse. Supposedly, her uncles kicked Mr. Freeman to death. Marguerite feels responsible for his death and quits talking. Marguerite and Bailey find themselves back in Stamps with no explanation. After years of silence, Marguerite is befriended by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a gentlewoman who gently persuades her to begin talking again by loaning her books to be read aloud and together (Novels for Students 136). She later graduates with honors from grammar school in 1940 and works as domestic help for a short while. Bailey comes into the Store in shock; he was made to handle a dead, black mans body and witnessed the brutality of whites towards blacks. Momma fears for his safety and sends Marguerite and Bailey back to their parents, who now live in California. World War II was in effect in San Francisco and their mother was married to Daddy Clindell. She attends nearly all white school and does very well, but is bored in the classes, except for social studies and her night classes at the California Labor School. Her father later invites her to vacation in Mexico with him when she finds out about his girlfriend. Her father gets too drunk and she is forced to drive all the way to the border. Marguerite and his girlfriend got into a fight and his girlfriend cuts Marguerite. So her father takes her to a friends house but she leaves and finds herself in a racially mixed community of young people living on their own in a junkyard. She lived there for about a month, but then calls her mother and returns to San Francisco. When she arrives home, she realizes that her mother and brother are always fighting until Bailey finally decides to move out and eventually joins the Merchant Marines. Marguerite then decides to find a job, and battled bureaucracy to become the first black conductorette on the streetcars. Unsure about her sexuality, she decides to seduce a young man and later becomes pregnant. She keeps the pregnancy a secret and decides to graduate high school and leaves a note on Daddy Clindells pillow informing her parents of her pregnancy. Her son is soon born and her mother helps take care of him. Her mother finally puts the three-week-old baby to sleep with Marguerite and then struggles to stay awake so she will not crush the baby. She then realizes how much to actually loves her child (Novels for Students 135-137).

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