I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Where It All Goes Down
Stamps, Arkansas during the Jim Crow era (i.e. 1930s)
The main setting for the first part of the novel is Stamps, a tiny (and very real) town on the border of Arkansas and Louisiana. Trains pass by this town without even stopping, and the nearest big city is hours away by bus. Not the most exciting place for a kid.
Things aren't looking good in Stamps. It's the 1930s, the height of racial segregation in the South. Slavery and the Civil War are still fresh in the minds of Southerners, and the Ku Klux Klan still roams the streets. Not bad enough for you? Well, the residents of Stamps are already scraping by when the Great Depression comes along to make things worse for everyone, black and white:
Stamps was as slow coming out of the Depression as it had been getting into it. World War II was well along before there was a noticeable change in the economy of that near-forgotten hamlet. (8.11)
Oh, and did we mention that even after women gained the right to vote in 1920, women's liberation was several decades away?
Bottom line: Stamps isn't the place to be—especially as a black woman.
Stuck in Neutral
Stamps is like a land without time. The words progress isn't even in their dictionary:
Weekdays revolved on a sameness wheel. They turned into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday's rough draft. (17.1)
Everything that does happen in Stamps seems to be disastrous: "droughts, floods, lynchings and deaths" (14.18). And the residents don't even try to change anything; they just continue with their lives, resigned to their poverty, believing that God will reward them eventually.
Just as surely as Maya can predict the seasons changing outside of the store, we as readers can predict what will happen in Stamps.
Owned and operated by Momma for twenty-five years, the Store (with a capital S) is the hub of Stamps. People congregate in the Store to listen to the radio, barbers work on its porch, children come in for free candy, and workers wait there to be taken to their jobs. And the range of items the Store stocks makes it seem like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, just less delicious.
Everyone in Stamps seems to come to the Store at some point, which allows us, as readers, to experience the community of Stamps. The rhythms and cycles of the Store are the rhythms of its clientele. People are always in there, doing something, giving us the feeling of a black community that sticks together and helps each other out. Even when no one had any money, Momma found a way to cater to the townspeople. Sure, it kept her in business, but more than that, those are her people.
Maya says that the store is her favorite place to be. Why do you think that is? Besides the candy of course.
St. Louis, Missouri
Microcosm. Stamps is one big (little?) microcosm. What we mean is that Angelou's description of Stamps is not so much about the town as it is about the entire South:
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. (8.1)
The stuck-in-neutral feeling of Stamps is actually the feeling we get about the South in general. It almost seems like the past, incapable of moving forwards. The North, on the other hand, is a magical mystery land—one that we discover when Maya moves to St. Louis.
Check out Maya's first impression of St. Louis:
St. Louis was a new kind of hot and a new kind of dirty. My memory had no pictures of the crowded-together soot-covered buildings. For all I knew, we were being driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil. (9.13)
Not so great. But the city proves to be very different from Stamps. Here's a quick rundown:
- Where Stamps was full of religious people with strict moral and ethical codes, St. Louis is filled with gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Perfect place for an eight-year-old.
- In Stamps, everyone preserved food together. In St. Louis, the food comes packaged, already cooked and everything.
- Everyone in St. Louis is more formal and less friendly than in Stamps. Sure, you might be able to keep a secret for more than ten seconds, but you also get the evil eye way more often.
Even though Maya is enthralled by all the newness of St. Louis, she decides that it's just not her type of city:
I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country. I would never get used to the scurrying sounds of flushing toilets, or the packaged foods, or doorbells or the noise of cars and trains and buses that crashed through the walls or slipped under the doors. (11.1)
Is it any surprise that she developed nightmares and Bailey Jr. began to stutter?
San Francisco, California in World War II
By the time Maya moves to San Francisco, the city is in a state of total upheaval. World War II has just begun, threatening the safety of the port city, and men are beginning to disappear as the draft takes effect.
Speaking of disappearing, the Japanese population also began to disappear:
The Yakamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy's Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira's Hardware metamorphosed into La Salon de Beauté owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes away from home for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. Where the odors of tempura, raw fish, and cha had dominated, the aroma of chitlings, greens and ham hocks now prevailed. (27.1)
What was going on here? Well, Executive Order 9066 allowed authorities to forcefully remove Japanese people from the city. At the same time, the Second Great Migration of black people from the South to the North was in full swing, and these new workers quickly took the place of the missing Japanese residents.
Everything is in flux, and that suits Maya just fine. In fact, San Francisco is the first place that Maya calls home. Just like Maya, the city is always changing. While Stamps is too backward, and St. Louis is too formal, San Francisco is just right:
The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness. (27.9)
San Francisco is also the first and only place in which we see black people advancing. Migrants from the South come to the North with big dreams, and earn more money than ever before. Daddy Clidell's conmen friends show that they can use racism to fight back at those who tried to oppress them. And on a more personal note, San Francisco is the place where Maya fights "the man" and becomes the first black conductorette in the city. Booya.
Of course, there is racism and segregation in San Francisco, too, but the black people of the city have not given up on fighting back.
(A Town Just Outside of) Ensenada, Mexico
We don't know a whole lot of specifics about the town that Maya and Daddy Bailey visit in Mexico. All we know is that they're not in St. Louis anymore. Basically, it's party time. Everyone is dancing, drinking Coke, and eating fried pigskins. People are hootin' and hollerin', and trying to throw streamers on the ceiling with chewing gum. And Maya gets in on the action:
I ate the fried pig skins, danced, screamed and drank the extra-sweet and sticky Coca-Cola with the nearest approach to abandonment I had ever experienced. (30.22)
This setting is less about the place itself and more about the experience. And this experience is nothing if not what Russian scholar Michel Bakhtin would call the carnivalesque. You know how during Mardi Gras or Spring Break anything goes, and people do things they would normally never do? All the rules are different, new things can happen, and it is totally okay to walk down the street with your face covered in paint and glitter? Well that is the carnivalesque.
In Mexico, Maya doesn't know anyone and can't communicate properly. Oh, and her dad is drunk and asleep and can't help her. So while this setting isn't much of a setting, it forces Maya into her first act of independence. And that's a big stinkin' deal.