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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 6

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 6 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 6 | Summary



Momma is very active in the local church. Every three months, when the presiding district elder visits the Christian Methodist Episcopal church in Stamps, he stays at Momma's on Saturday night and then preaches at the church on Sunday. Maya and Bailey can't stand Reverend Thomas, and he can never remember their names. They think he's fat and ugly, not to mention he always eats the biggest and best portions at Sunday meals. In spite of their dislike of the man, the children are respectful to him, a tribute to Momma's training. When Reverend Thomas visits, he and Momma gossip about the latest scandals, and Maya and Bailey eavesdrop while they're supposed to be studying. The scandals often involve sex and white people, two subjects Maya admits she doesn't really understand. When asked to bless the table for the Sunday meal, Reverend Thomas drones on and on for such a long time that the food becomes cold and unappetizing.

On one particular visit, as they all walk to the church, Maya recalls a sermon given by Reverend Taylor when Sister Monroe started shouting, "Preach it. I say, preach it." She approached the pulpit, grabbed Reverend Taylor, and started a general ruckus amongst the churchgoers that ended up with the preacher on the floor. Maya and Bailey had laughed about "the incident" for weeks afterward. Reverend Thomas has heard the story, but he doesn't know Sister Monroe by sight. Soon after Reverend Thomas begins his sermon, Sister Monroe approaches the pulpit, shouting, "Preach it." Before the ushers and other church members can stop her, she hits Reverend Thomas on the back of the head with her purse. His false teeth fly out and land at Maya's feet; he scoops them up and continues preaching. But Bailey and Maya lose control; they fall on the floor, kicking and screaming with laughter. Later, Uncle Willie, outraged by their behavior, gives them a severe whipping. For weeks afterward Maya feels as if she's perched "on laughter's cliff," in danger of falling into instant hysteria at the slightest provocation.


Because Momma is devout, religion plays a big part in Maya's upbringing. In many ways, the church is the center of the African American community in Stamps, providing a social outlet as well as spiritual support. Maya knows Momma considers laughing in church to be very disrespectful, so she tries hard to control herself. Bailey, however, is more of a free spirit, and with his keen ability to appreciate the humor in a situation, he goads Maya into breaking her resolve to be serious.

Maya and Bailey's closeness is evident in this chapter, in their shared opinion of the odious Reverend Thomas, their ploy to eavesdrop on gossip sessions, and their shared sense of humor. Bailey's buoyant, imaginative, adventurous spirit provides a necessary counterbalance to Momma's and Uncle Willie's serious, responsible, practical approach to life. It's interesting to consider how Maya's personality might have developed differently without Bailey's early influence.

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