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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 1 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 1 | Summary



At age three, Maya and her brother, Bailey, one year older, travel alone by train from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents have divorced and have decided to send the children to live with their father's mother, Momma. They live behind the General Store, which Momma built after running a mobile lunch counter for a few years. The store has become a hub of social activities in the African American part of town. It's here that the cotton pickers gather in the mornings to board the wagons that "carry them to the remains of slavery's plantations." It's also where they return at the end of a long day of labor.


In describing their arrival in Stamps, Angelou personifies the town with human qualities, saying that it regarded her and her brother "without curiosity, but with caution," ultimately closing in around them "as a real mother embraces a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly." Maya keenly feels the absence of her "real mother," and the longing of both children for their parents' love and acceptance is a thread that weaves throughout the story. Their grandmother, Momma, is strict and very religious. She's responsible and takes good care of the children, but she doesn't coddle them.

The description of the cotton pickers and their interactions at the store reflect the contrast between softness and harshness, or hope and reality. The morning seems magical and pleasant to Maya, as the pickers joke and brag hopefully about how much they will pick. When the exhausted workers return in the evenings, the magic is replaced by reality, and hopefulness is replaced by disappointment. They haven't picked enough; they're not going to get out of debt. Angelou helps to convey the harshness of life for the pickers by describing details such as "the fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls," and presenting the image of them "sewing the coarse material under a coal-oil lamp with fingers stiffening from the day's work."

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Questions for Chapter 1

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