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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 21

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 21 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 21 | Summary



When Bailey is 11 years old, he sets up a makeshift tent behind the house where he "plays house." Fully clothed, he simulates having sex with a succession of girls. Then he meets Joyce, who is about 15 and lives with her poor, widowed aunt. Joyce runs errands for the General Store, and Momma gives her gifts of food to take home. Bailey and Joyce play house, with Maya as the lookout, and Bailey is surprised and confused when Joyce wants to take her underpants off to "do it." Maya overhears and knows what Joyce wants him to do. She tells Bailey he'll be sorry if he does it, assuming he'll have to go to the hospital as she had to do after she was raped. Bailey's love affair with Joyce lasts for several months. As he steals more and more food and money for her, she does less work around the store, and then one day, she just disappears. They learn later that she has run away with a train porter. Bailey becomes withdrawn, even with Maya, and stops sharing confidences with her.


Bailey's experience with Joyce the first time they play house shows he's confused about what sex really is. Maya's warning to Bailey shows she's also confused. She thinks the pain she experienced when she was raped is part of normal sex, and she doesn't want Bailey to have to suffer or go to the hospital. Bailey deals with his heartbreak over Joyce the same way he deals with his grief over being separated from his mother—by refusing to talk about it.

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