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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 4 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 4 | Summary



Maya describes her childhood fascination with a neighbor, Mr. McElroy. He wears suits and allows Maya and Bailey to play on his land. He doesn't go to church, which seems very courageous in a community where religion is so highly valued. From her later adult perspective, Angelou sees that Mr. McElroy wasn't really all that interesting—he was just a patent medicine salesman who was different because he owned his house and land. Because he seemed different, Maya keeps expecting him to do something unexpected, but he never does.

The most important person in Maya's life is her brother, Bailey. Physically, he's the opposite of Maya— small, graceful, and mischievous. Like her, he's an avid reader. Bailey gives unwavering loyalty to his younger, gawky, less-confident sister, and defends her when people say unkind things about her. Maya cherishes her brother as her closest companion and best friend.

The community works together to can a wide variety of delicious foods for use throughout the year. A few times a year, Momma sends Bailey and Maya to the white part of town to purchase fresh meat. When they walk through the African American section of Stamps, they enjoy stopping, according to custom, to speak to everyone they meet. Walking through the white side of town is very different. Stamps is so segregated that "most Black children didn't really absolutely know what whites looked like." Whites are regarded with a mixture of dread and hostility, and a certain level of unreality. Maya doesn't really think of them as people, because they're so different from the folks who live on her side of town. To her, they're "strange pale creatures." She doesn't consider them "folks" because they're nothing like the people she knows; instead, they're just "whitefolks."


In this chapter, Maya is becoming more aware of differences in class and race. Mr. McElroy is fascinating to her because he's independent. He dresses well, works for himself, and owns a nice home, which is unusual in the African American part of Stamps. His independence suggests that he's higher class and more exceptional than most people in town, but as a child Maya doesn't understand that having wealth doesn't make a person interesting or exceptional.

The description of how everyone works together to can and store food highlights the closeness of the African American community. Angelou's description of the different foods they store conveys an image of abundance.

As Maya and Bailey walk toward the white area of town to shop for Momma, the African American section of Stamps is depicted as a sociable community where everyone knows each other. This contrasts with the description of the other part of town, where Maya and Bailey feel on edge and uncomfortable. There are no friendly greetings here. Because of segregation, the African Americans and the whites don't know one another, and each side feels threatened in some way by the other.

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Questions for Chapter 4

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