I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 24

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 24 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 24 | Summary



Maya has two very painful cavities, and the nearest African American dentist is 25 miles away. Momma decides to take her to Dentist Lincoln, the white doctor in Stamps, who owes her a favor. During the Depression, Momma had loaned money to both African Americans and whites, and many still had not paid it back. At Dentist Lincoln's back door, Momma asks his assistant to tell the dentist "Annie" is here. He makes them wait more than an hour before he sees them, only to tell Momma he doesn't treat "colored people." She reminds him of the favor, but he refuses again, saying the money has been repaid.

After more back and forth argument, he uses the N-word, saying he'd rather stick his hand into a dog's mouth, and he goes back inside. Momma is quiet for a few minutes. Then she tells Maya to wait downstairs while she goes inside. As she waits, Maya fantasizes that Momma turns into a comic-book-type superhero and puts Dentist Lincoln in his place, using perfectly enunciated English and words like varlet and herewith.

When Momma comes out of the office, she tells Maya they're going to the dentist in Texarkana. The trip is successful, and Maya's pain is finally relieved. Back home, Momma tells Uncle Willie what she really said to Dr. Lincoln: she told him that he still owes her 10 dollars in interest on the loan he'd taken out with her. She admits to Uncle Willie that she hadn't originally charged the dentist interest, but she figured he should pay it to help make up for his nastiness. Maya, of course, prefers her version of the encounter.


The ordeal of trying to get relief for Maya's toothaches shows the kind of everyday hardships segregation causes for African Americans. In addition to the difficulty of getting Maya's basic need for dental care addressed, Momma and Maya must deal with hateful language and insults from Dentist Lincoln. Maya feels humiliated for Momma when she uses only her first name to announce herself to the dentist. But as Momma has said before, she's a realist about such things: it wouldn't be particularly helpful to her purpose if she insisted on using "Mrs. Henderson."

In Maya's fantasized version of the encounter between Momma and Dentist Lincoln, she gives Momma "an eloquent command of English" in addition to the superpowers of a comic-book hero. Maya has mentioned before that she wishes Momma would use correct grammar, so she gives it to her in her fantasy. In the fantasy, Maya gives Momma both physical power over the dentist and the power to decide where and how he may work. These are the kinds of powers whites typically exercise over African Americans, so Maya gets satisfaction out of having Momma exercise them over Dr. Lincoln. Momma, meanwhile, is quite happy with having made Dentist Lincoln pay her an extra 10 dollars in interest for the loan she'd given to him.

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