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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Setting & Time Period

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Maya Angelou mainly grew up in a small town in the South in the 1930s and 1940s, but she also experienced life in the city. In this lesson, we'll discuss the setting of Maya Angelou's autobiography ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings''.

Background and Definitions

How were teenagers in the 1950s different from teenagers today? The setting in which a person is raised has a big influence on their experiences. The setting includes the time, place, and atmosphere in which events of a story take place. Maya Angelou describes her experience growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in the South. Because of her chaotic family situation, she also spent some time in the cities of St. Louis and San Francisco. Let's learn more about the settings and time period in the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

1930s-1940s America

The decades in which Maya grew up were an interesting time in America. These were the years of the Great Depression, which was a world-wide economic crisis that began with the stock market crash. Maya describes, 'The Depression must have hit the white section of Stamps with cyclonic impact, but it seeped into the Black area slowly, like a thief with misgivings.' The black families were so used to being poor that it seemed for the first couple of years as though it didn't influence them. However, when it eventually trickles down, the Depression brings about a loss in wages that hits everyone hard. Maya remembers surviving on powdered eggs and milk, even though her family was better off than most.

This was also an era before the civil rights movement when neighborhoods and schools were segregated. Maya narrates, 'In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn't really, absolutely know what whites looked like.' Black schools were not offered the same resources as their black counterparts. For black men, violence in the form of lynching was common.

By the 1940s, World War II began, which meant that Japanese internment camps were utilized. Many black people could establish homes and businesses in the vacuum created by the terrible imprisonment of so many of their Asian neighbors.

Stamps, Arkansas

After her parents' divorce when she is three years old, Maya is sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother, Momma. Maya describes, 'Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin' Switch, Georgia; Hang 'Em High, Alabama; Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive.' This small town was completely segregated to the point that Maya never saw white people when she was very young. The center of the black section of town was Momma's store, which carried all the canned goods people needed to survive. They did not have a refrigerated section as no one in this part of town has a refrigerator. Black Stamps, as Maya calls it, also has its own churches and schools.

The white part of town is where Maya and Bailey go twice a year to get fresh meat. Many of the white residents are wealthy, but there is also a good percentage of 'powhitetrash,' who still consider themselves better than the most aristocratic black people. The KKK runs rampant and the law does little to stop them.

St. Louis, Missouri

When Maya is eight years old, her father retrieves her and takes her to St. Louis, Missouri to live with her mother. According to Maya, 'The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe that they were against the law.' This kind of excitement is what Maya's mother, Vivian, lives for. Maya doesn't have a strong connection to St. Louis, just as she never felt strongly connected to Stamps. To her, it is just a place she is passing through. However, talk of the snow, indoor plumbing, and refrigerators in St. Louis prove to be entertaining for the people of Stamps once they return.

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