Study Guide

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Sexuality and Sexual Identity

By Maya Angelou

Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Because of the kinds of news we filched from those hushed conversations, I was convinced that whenever Reverend Thomas came and Momma sent us to the back room they were going to discuss whitefolks and "doing it." (6.13)

Ah, "doing it." We wish Maya was able to maintain this innocence about sex. But just six chapters later, she is raped, and her entire world is turned upside down.

"Now, this ain't gonna hurt you much. You liked it before, didn't you?"

I didn't want to admit that I had in fact liked his holding me or that I had like his smell or the hard heart-beating, so I said nothing. (12.4-5)

We can imagine that Maya is scared out of her mind at this moment. But the emotion that adult Maya relates to us is shame.

Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot. (12.8)

Adult Maya's abstract thinking and use of figurative language make us forget that we are hearing about her own experiences. Instead of describing the rape in detail—which is what young Maya probably would have done—she tries to conceptualize it differently. Eight-year-old Maya couldn't process what had happened, but adult Maya has had time to reflect, to heal, and to understand.

Haste, dig for cover. Protect your flanks. Don't let the enemy close the gap between you. What did a Valentine do, anyway? (20.25)

It's on! If sexuality is all about aggression, then Maya is hunkering down in the trenches. And you know what, that's okay. She's a kid, for crying out loud.

His statement that whether I answered him or not would not influence his affection reassured me. He couldn't be after you-know-what if he talked like that. (20.41)

Tommy Valdon is romantic, so of course he wouldn't want you-know-what with you-know-who. Clearly, Maya does not associate romance and love—and how could she, after all that she's been through?

I don't know how long Bailey had known about Joyce, but later in the evening when I tried to bring her name into our conversation, he said, "Joyce? She's got somebody to do it to her all the time now." (21.43)

In Bailey's young mind, marriage means sex—when Joyce elopes, she's set for life. Where do you think he gets this idea? What examples of marriage does he have in his life?

For months the book was both a treat and a threat. It allowed me to see a little of the mysterious world of the pervert. (35.1)

First things first: Maya thinks lesbians are perverts. (Oh, and she also thinks lesbians are hermaphrodites…) But she's kind of getting some scary, voyeuristic pleasure out of the whole deal. Why does she want to see into the world of the pervert?

"Mother, something is growing on my vagina." […]

"On both sides. Inside." I couldn't add that they were fleshy skin flaps that had been growing for months down there. She'd have to pull that out of me.

"Ritie, go get me that big Webster's and then bring me a bottle of beer." […]

"Sit down, baby. Read this." Her fingers guided my eyes to VULVA. (35.27, 31-32, 35)

As much as Maya has been exposed to sex, she's still pretty clueless when it comes to sexuality. Things definitely happened in the wrong order for our girl.

All I knew was that I had been moved by looking at a woman's breasts. (35.70)

What in Maya's life has led her to this black and white view of sexual identity?

I believe most plain girls are virtuous because of the scarcity of opportunity to be otherwise. They shield themselves with an aura of unavailableness (for which after a time they begin to take credit) largely as a defense tactic.

In my particular case, I could not hide behind the curtain of voluntary goodness. I was being crushed by two unrelenting forces: the uneasy suspicion that I might not be a normal female and my newly awakening sexual appetite. (35.53-54)

It's one thing to have an "awakening sexual appetite"—that's called being a teenager. But Maya also feels like she has to prove something. Sex and proving something is never a good combination, and in Maya's case (like in many others), it ends in teen pregnancy.