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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 16

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 16 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 16 | Summary



Angelou discusses how girls are prepared for adulthood, noting African American girls' training tends to include old-fashioned Victorian skills such as needlework. To learn "the finer touches around the home," Maya takes a job in a white woman's kitchen when she's 10 years old. Mrs. Viola Cullinan comes from a wealthy Virginia family. She keeps an exacting meal schedule, is very attached to her family's china and glassware, and often entertains ladies on the porch. Maya feels sorry for her because she's learned from Miss Glory, the cook, that Mrs. Cullinan can't have children.

It's a little annoying that Mrs. Cullinan calls her "Margaret" instead of "Marguerite," her proper name, but Maya is outraged when Mrs. Cullinan decides to rename her "Mary" just because it's shorter than Margaret. The cook tells Maya she's been renamed "Glory" because her proper name, "Hallelujah," was considered too long. Maya decides she must quit the job, but she knows Momma won't allow it, so she tries to get herself fired. She comes in late, leaves early, and does slipshod work, but Glory doesn't complain to Mrs. Cullinan. At Bailey's suggestion, Maya finally resorts to breaking some of Mrs. Cullinan's favorite glassware, and that does the trick.


This chapter explores the theme of names and identity. Maya's outrage at being renamed Mary by Mrs. Cullinan is evidence of her growing sense of self-worth. Maya is not about to allow anyone, particularly a white woman who is virtually a stranger, to take the liberty of renaming her. As Glory's anecdote about her own name attests, it was a fairly common practice for whites to rename their servants. Giving a person a new name is a way of exhibiting power over that person.

Maya has always been sensitive to the way whites show disrespect to African Americans by using only first names. It makes her angry when whites, especially children, call Momma "Annie," instead of "Mrs. Henderson." Much as she'd like to just quit the job with Mrs. Cullinan, she can't because she knows Momma doesn't share her feelings about names and respect. Momma believes it's important to avoid confrontation with whites. Breaking the china in order to get fired not only solves the problem of how to get away from an oppressive situation, but it also offers Maya the chance to punish Mrs. Cullinan for her arrogance.

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