I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 18

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 18 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 18 | Summary



Angelou describes the cotton pickers who come to the General Store at the end of their workday, exhausted, aching, but persevering, and giving credit to God for their existence. Maya thinks they are "hateful to have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen," and "even more shameful to pretend things were not as bad as they were." She keeps her feelings to herself, knowing Momma would be furious if she voiced this opinion. Maya is amazed that instead of staying at home to rest after such a hard day's work, people will go home to get cleaned up and then go out to a revival meeting.

The revival meeting is held once a year by members of the Church of God in Christ, known as the Holy Rollers for their loud, enthusiastic church services. All the Christian churches in the community gather on a Saturday night for the revival in a cloth tent erected in a cornfield. Maya wonders if God approves of the timing and location of the service. The revival meeting is described in detail. There is joyful singing, followed by a sermon on the text "The least of these," which assures the listeners that although their lives may be filled with hardship, they will reap vast rewards in heaven. After the sermon, there is a call for those who have strayed and want to be saved to come up and speak to representatives of the churches. After more hymns and a collection, the attendees leave, feeling refreshed and validated.

On the way home from the meeting, the mood of hope and anticipation begins to deflate as people pass by the noisy house where the Saturday-night customers of Miss Grace, "the good-time woman," are singing and dancing to honky-tonk music. The hymns of the revival meeting and the honky-tonk songs seem to serve a similar purpose for the downtrodden workers.


Maya's impatience with the cotton pickers for allowing themselves to be exploited foreshadows the commitment she'll have later in her life to the civil rights movement. Religion plays an important part in Maya's life, although she's not as devout a believer as Momma. She describes the revival meeting as something of an outsider, examining the effects of the sermon on the listeners. She recognizes that the sermons and the hymns offer both the promise of rewards in the next life for the downtrodden and also the promise of retribution for the oppressors.

The gathering is aptly named because it does revive the workers' flagging spirits by assuring them that persevering on the path they are on and trusting in God to reward them is the right choice. The comparison of the people who take comfort from the revival meeting with the customers who are singing and dancing at Miss Grace's implies that religion, like secular entertainment, serves as an escape and a release for "the needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed." The unspoken question is whether the comfort people find in religion or in entertainment distracts them from pursuing the goal of social equality.

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