I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Course Hero, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide," October 13, 2016, accessed September 29, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/.

Chapter 5

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 5 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 5 | Summary



Momma is a strict disciplinarian, instilling the values of cleanliness and politeness in Maya and Bailey. These values aren't shared by the "powhitetrash" (poor white trash) children who live on Momma's land. These children are dirty, bossy, and undisciplined; plus, they call Momma and Uncle Willie by their first names. Interacting with them is painful and annoying to Maya, who resents having to be polite to them.

One morning, while Maya and Momma are admiring the designs Maya has raked into the dirt yard in front of the General Store, several powhitetrash girls approach the store, obviously intent on causing trouble. Momma sends Maya inside, where she watches in tears as the girls mock Momma. One stands on her hands, revealing she's not wearing underpants. Momma ignores them and simply stands her ground, humming a hymn. The girls finally leave, calling Momma by her first name, and she uses the title Miz when she says good-bye to each of them. This enrages Maya, who thinks giving them that title is too subservient.

However, when Momma comes inside, Maya realizes it was Momma who actually triumphed in the situation. Then Maya rakes a new design into the yard, even better than the last one, showing multiple hearts, pierced by an arrow, and Momma gives her approval.


In this chapter, Maya contrasts the children of the African American community with the children of the powhitetrash families in Stamps. The African American children are held to high standards of behavior, while the powhitetrash children are rude and overbearing. Frustrated by the social constraints that require her to "turn the other cheek," Maya's impulse is to lash out when the girls insult Momma. But Momma, by refusing to be provoked by the girls' behavior, denies the girls the satisfaction of thinking that they have the power to upset her. This is the reason Momma "wins" in the confrontation. Maya grasps this on some level, although she doesn't completely understand the dynamics of the situation.

To be stoic in the face of insults requires more self-awareness and self-confidence than Maya has yet acquired. She initially interpreted Momma's strategy as subservience, but given the times and the existing power structure, turning the other cheek was a smart way of coping with the unfair situation. The time will come in Maya's future when she'll have the self-confidence and the support to follow her impulse to demand rights and respect.

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