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"I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country. In my mind I had only stayed there for a few weeks. As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin's Hood's Forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed my day. I carried the same shield that I had used in Stamps: 'I didn't come to stay.'"
In Maya Angelou's autobiographical novel, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", tender-hearted Marguerite Johnson, renamed Maya by her refined brother Bailey, discovers all of the splendors and agonies of growing up in a prejudiced, early twentieth century America. Rotating between the slow country life of Stamps, Arkansas and the fast-pace societies in St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, California taught Maya several random aspects of life while showing her segregated America from coast to coast.
When Maya was three years old, her beautiful and successful mother sent her and Bailey from California to Stamps to stay in the care of their grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson. Soon thought of as their real mother, "Momma" raised her grandchildren with the strict Southern principles such as, "wash your feet before you go to bed; always pray to the savior and you shall be forgiven; chores and school come before play; and help those in need and you shall be helped yourself." Bearing those basic principles, Maya and Bailey grew older and wiser in Stamps, each year watching the Negro cotton-pickers come and go with the burdens and homage comparable to no white person in the county.
However, one day their father rode extravagantly into Stamps and called for his children to return home with him to St. Louis. Bailey, an adventurer eager to leave the quaint, simple family life in Arkansas, agreed immediately, but "tender-hearted" Maya was frightened by the idea of big cities and strange people. In St. Louis, where she was presented an entirely different lifestyle, Maya experienced harrowing moments that caused her yearning for the quiet safety of Stamps. Her "Mother Dear's" boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually abused her twice, and when she testified in court against him, the "important connections" her mother had to the gangsters in St. Louis beat Mr. Freeman to death to disburden the shame from the family. In court, Maya lied, saying that he only touched her once, and the guilt of lying to her closest friend, her brother Bailey, cause Maya to mute herself.
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At home again, Maya concentrated on her schoolwork and her duties to Momma's store, the only Negro owned store in Stamps, until after her graduation from eighth grade, when she and Bailey were again sent away, this time to California. They stayed together with Mother Dear, both attending a non-segregated high school, until Bailey, being a sixteen-year-old independent man, decided to move into his own apartment. Maya then was sent over the summer to live with her father, who resided in a trailer park with his venomous and unforgiving girlfriend, Dolores. After a physical fight with Dolores, Maya decided to run away from her father's home and try to live on her own with freedom. She spent a month in an old car lot with some other boys she met, but at last decided to return to San Francisco with her mother. After her adventures in the junk yard, Maya wished for an alternate lifestyle to the boring school-to-home schedule she was acquainted with. Her desire to work on the street cars in San Francisco lead her to fight against the "common forces of nature: white illogical hate and Black lack of power," and soon she was employed. Now questioning her sexuality after reading a book about lesbians and enjoying watching a female friend take off her shirt, she asked a fellow classmate if he wanted to have sexual intercourse with her to ensure herself that she did in fact enjoy men. After they made love, and still uncertain of her sexual preference, she found herself pregnant three weeks later at the age of sixteen. Maya decided to wait until after her high school graduation to tell her mother, and three weeks after that she gave birth to a baby boy whom she was afraid to even touch because of her known clumsiness.
Stamps and St. Louis or San Francisco plays considerably different roles in the upbringings of Maya and Bailey. In Stamps, Maya learns to survive in a white-domineering society by praying and helping others. During the Great Depression, her well-off Momma lent out money to both struggling Negro and white folks even though, "the whites in [their] town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn't buy vanilla ice cream." Once after arriving back from St. Louis, Maya used the expression "by the way" to tell Bailey of the treats a friend had given them, and Momma prayed and cried that the sinful child be forgiven for using the Lord's name in vain. "By the way" was a common expression in St. Louis, where their mother only went to church once a year, but in Stamps the religious believers found it sinful, and Maya was beaten. Stamps represents the "cage" of the novel, a secure place where Maya could flutter and sing like a bird and not worry about being hurt by the disturbances of the cities. Clearly happier in Stamps, Maya described her return to home as being, "exactly what I wanted without will or consciousness. After St. Louis, with its noise and activity, its trucks and buses, and loud family gathering, I welcomed the obscure lanes and lonely bungalow set back deep in dirt yards. Into this cocoon I crept."
In California, Maya experienced an entirely different perspective on life, where gamblers, hustlers, prostitutes, and gangsters all earned respectable titles and respect. Maya once heard the stories from the best con-artists in the country who cheated malicious, bigoted white men out of everything they owned. In the evenings after her school work was finished, and she never had any chores to do like in Stamps, her mother would take her out dancing and teach her to jitterbug in smoke and whiskey filled dance clubs. In Stamps, this wild way of life would be considered immoral to all religious and simple folk like Momma.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou gives the perspective of growing up from a southern Negro girl in three radically different towns: Stamps, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Maya's protective and unadorned world in Stamps helped her hold sacred and moral family values that were then mostly contrasted when she was whisked away to Missouri and California. Living with her maternal mother gave Maya a glimpse at the future world, and helped her to control her "tender heart" and emotions, however Maya seemed always happiest in Stamps with her grandmother. Maya discovered why the caged bird sings when she herself was protected in the enclosure of the simple, hard-life town in which she was reared.