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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 2

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 2 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 2 | Summary



Uncle Willie, who was disabled in a childhood accident, lives at the General Store with Momma. He has difficulty with walking and speaking, and has little use of his left hand. He's a proud, sensitive man, but his disability is unsettling to others. Maya suggests children are repelled by disability because it embarrasses them; they realize that it is only by luck that they have escaped a similar fate. One day she happens on Willie in the store pretending to some out-of-town customers that he is not disabled. He has hidden his cane and creates the impression for the customers that he runs the store and takes care of his aged mother and his brother's two children. Maya thinks that Uncle Willie would have been a better father to her than her own father.

Maya confesses she "fell in love with William Shakespeare" during her years in Stamps due to her love of language and powerful words, but it was a love she hid from Momma because of "his whiteness." She enjoys other white authors, such as Kipling, Poe, and Thackeray; and she is passionate about the works of African American writers such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois. With Momma in mind, instead of memorizing a scene from Shakespeare, as they had wanted, she and Bailey decide to memorize a passage by James Weldon Johnson.


When Maya witnesses Uncle Willie's deception in the General Store, she understands he longs to be seen for who he is, not for his disability. Her own search for identity and self-worth helps her to sympathize with his attempt at deception. After the strangers leave, Angelou gives a detailed description of Uncle Willie lurching down the aisle, "hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream," to retrieve his hidden cane. This description provides a strong contrast between the image Uncle Willie tried to project for the strangers and the reality of his everyday life.

Maya reveals she has no feelings of loyalty to her father, but she does seem to be developing feelings of loyalty to the African American community, which shows in the choice of poem she picks for memorization.

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