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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 8

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 8 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 8 | Summary



The strong racial prejudice in the white section of Stamps creates an attitude of "fear-admiration-contempt" in the African American community for all things "white." Much of this attitude can be attributed to the wealth inequality between the two communities. Maya wonders why whites have the right to have and spend so much money. She says she knows God was white but couldn't believe he was prejudiced. Momma has money and owns land and houses, but still she lives very frugally, sewing clothes for herself and the children. Only Uncle Willie wears store-bought clothes. The Depression hits the African American community in Stamps later than it hits the white community, reducing the wages of the workers who are the General Store's customers. Momma uses her entrepreneurial ingenuity to keep the store afloat. She comes up with a plan to allow customers to trade their welfare rations of lard, powdered milk and eggs, and similar staples for store goods.

Maya's parents are divorced and live in California. One Christmas they both send presents to Maya and Bailey. Their father sends a picture of himself. Maya's mother sends her a tea set and "a doll with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head." The gifts are upsetting to both children, especially to Maya, who goes outside to cry. She has convinced herself that the reason they're living with their grandmother is because their parents have died. Now she's forced to question why their parents don't want them. Bailey suggests their mother may have been angry with them for something they did, but perhaps the presents indicate she's forgiven them and will soon come for them. The next day, Maya and Bailey tear the stuffing out of the doll.


The racial segregation in Stamps highlights the economic inequality between whites and African Americans. Maya resents how whites are somehow assumed to be entitled to earn more money and have better things than African Americans. She's scornful of how wasteful they are, compared to the frugality of African Americans. She feels her community's frugality could be the reason the Depression comes to the African American community more slowly. The members are more self-reliant in that they grow and can their own food, make their own clothes, and resole their own shoes.

The Christmas gifts from her mother force Maya to confront the reality that her mother is alive and yet chooses not to be with her children. Young children of divorce often lack an understanding of adult relationships. Maya and Bailey assume they've done something wrong, causing their parents to send them away. Even if, as Bailey suggests, their parents might be planning to come for them, the idea is upsetting because their parents, at this point, are strangers to them.

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