I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 17

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 17 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 17 | Summary



Angelou paints a picture of life in Stamps on weekends, when farmers and their children stop at the Grocery Store on their way into town. For Maya and Bailey, mornings are consumed by chores. Later in the day, Bailey uses the allowance Momma now gives them to go to the movies in town. One Saturday, Bailey is so late coming home from the movies that Momma begins to worry. African American men and boys were often targeted by whites and might be attacked and even killed for little or no reason. When Bailey still hasn't come home by dark, Momma and Maya go out with flashlights to meet him. They finally see Bailey walking toward home. He seems sad and offers no explanation or excuse for his lateness. He doesn't even cry out when Uncle Willie whips him with a leather belt.

That night, before he goes to bed, Bailey says "the baby prayer" instead of the usual Lord's Prayer, which seems curious to Maya. Bailey is quiet and withdrawn for days afterward, and finally he tells Maya that he'd stayed for the second showing of the movie because a white movie star, Kay Francis, looks almost exactly like their mother. Two months later, Maya goes with Bailey to see Kay Francis in a movie, and it makes her feel happy, but Bailey has the opposite reaction. On the way home, Bailey frightens Maya by running across the train tracks right in front of the freight train, leaving her on the opposite side as the train passes, not knowing whether he's been hit or has caught the train and is gone. Angelou says that a year later he does catch a freight train, but he doesn't make it to California. Instead, he ends up stranded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for two weeks.


Momma's unspoken concern for Bailey when he's late coming home underlines the danger that was constantly lurking for young African American men in the South. Even boys of Bailey's age were vulnerable targets for hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Bailey's action of not telling Momma and Uncle Willie about how much he misses his mother suggests this is a family with a habit of stoicism: they don't talk about feelings or emotions. Bailey's pent-up emotions seem to be leading him into some risky behavior, as indicated by the incident where he dashes in front of the train. This is confirmed by Angelou's comment that the following year he catches a freight train in an attempt to get to California.

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