Classifying Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

as an African-American Female Bildungsroman




Clifford J. Kurkowski


Thesis for the Master of Arts - English

The University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

May 2004





            In the late 1960s when Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, met with and proposed to Maya Angelou that she write her autobiography, she flatly turned down the offer. Several months later, Loomis again asked her to write an autobiography, but this time he posed a challenge by stating that “autobiography as literature is the most difficult thing anyone can do” (Tate 152).  Not being the type of person who would refuse a challenge, Angelou took the offer and wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969.  Now over thirty years later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is part of the American Canon and a required text on many high school and college syllabi.

The story begins when Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, and her older brother are shipped from California to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother following their parents divorce.  Marguerite is just three years old when she and Bailey are sent to live with Annie Henderson, the woman they come to call “Momma,” who runs the only store in the black part of town.

Throughout the book, Marguerite struggles through the insecurities of being black in the 1930s South, where she constantly encounters the stinging reality of racism.  The story progresses through Marguerite’s childhood, from the shame she feels when she is raped by age eight by her mother’s boyfriend, to the pride she experiences in becoming the first black female streetcar conductorette in San Francisco at age fifteen.

The story ends as Marguerite seduces a teenage boy in her neighborhood to ease her anxiety that she may be a lesbian because she is taller and huskier than her female classmates.  As a result of intercourse with the neighborhood boy, Marguerite becomes pregnant.  Giving birth to her son when she is only sixteen leads Marguerite to accept her evolution into womanhood.  It is becoming a mother that helps her realize that she is more than a gawky black girl with “nappy hair.”

            When Random House released Caged Bird Sings in 1970, the book was highly praised by book reviewers as one of best pieces of literature that year.  The book was nominated for a National Book Award and received many accolades from other black and white writers.  Sidonie Ann Smith’s 1973 scholarly review of Caged Bird Sings in the magazine Southern Humanities Review captures the tone of what many reviewers and readers had already said about the book: “Angelou's genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making” (375).  The book resonated with Smith and many other critics because of its open and frank discussion of rape, racism, and the struggles of a young black woman coming to terms with her own self-identity in society.

When the book hit the stands in 1970, it had been seven years since Martin Luther King, Jr., had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 250,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and less than a decade had passed since the country had lost a strong civil rights supporter, President John F. Kennedy, to gunfire at a Dallas parade. The Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states from using literary tests and other methods to keep blacks from voting, had passed in 1965—the same year black activist Malcolm X was assassinated.  The black community was still mourning the loss of its other charismatic leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., who was shot in April 1968 on the balcony of a Memphis hotel.

As African-Americans were fighting for civil rights, racial injustice, and equality, the feminist movement was gaining momentum.  Women were pushing for equal rights, more independence, equal pay, and the right to be heard. Women’s activist Betty Friedan helped the women’s movement with her 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, which sparked a national debate on the role of women as housewives.  It was a historic moment when twenty National Organization of Women leaders disrupted hearings of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments in 1970 to demand that the Equal Rights Amendment be heard by the full Congress.

            In 1970 the American public was still coming to terms with the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. Angelou’s book brought racism to the forefront and helped the American public understand the character and quality of black life during the 1920s and 1930s.

There were other books during this period that gave readers a similar taste of what it was like growing up in the South, books such as Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but Angelou’s book did not have the same amount of rage or biting racism the other books had. Like Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, Angelou’s book appealed to the white reader because it did not have an angry voice and did not hold the same grudges about slavery that the other books carried.

            Though Caged Bird Sings does not hold any grudges about slavery, it still reveals the harsh realities of segregated life in the South that, in turn, prompted a critical fascination with the book on several levels, she chose to write in a subtle tone about segregation and not in an angry tone as other African-American authors have done.  One level of observation deals with the character narration concerning the personal life of the author during the 1920s and 1930s.  One can read the story in several ways—one way being as a historical, socio-economic narrative in which the narrator presents African-American life in rural Arkansas in contrast with city life in St. Louis and San Francisco.

            Since its publication, critics have praised the book for its poignant portrayal of the economic hardship and social injustices of racism in America during the Depression.  In 2002, book reviewer Hinton Als discusses in his retrospective review “Songbird” that certain historical cultural moments helped clear the way for Angelou to write a book that shows readers that a young black girl growing up in the segregated South can overcome obstacles like rape to become a unique individual who triumphs overall:


                    […] the success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, like that of many memoirs, had less to do with the originality of its writing

                    than with its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist. By the time I Know Why was published, Martin Luther King, Jr., and

                    Malcolm X were dead, and the only hope for black politics, it seemed, lay in the voices that were just beginning to be heard:

                    those of such strong-willed female politicians as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, two of the first black women to serve

                    in Congress. Chisholm and Jordon, products of the colonial West Indies and the Old South, respectively, pinned their speeches

                    to the idea of a changing United States, and it was their brand of rhetoric-a fierce criticism of the past blended with a kind

                    of survivor’s optimism, a belief in the future of the urban family-that cleared the way for Angelou’s narrative of damage,

                    perseverance, and eventual triumph. (74)


            Other critics have lauded her book as a well-crafted account of an African-American woman’s coming of age, or bildungsroman, a German term meaning “novel of transformation.” In “Paths to Escape” literary critic Susan Gilbert agrees with other critics that older paradigms placing Caged Bird Sings in the genre of the bildungsroman is a “long tradition in this country of Afro-American autobiography,” but she understands that there could be other ways of looking at this book since it can be seen “interchangeably as novel and autobiography” (Gilbert 104).

            The purpose of this thesis is to show that Angelou’s book does not fit within the autobiography genre or other older paradigms in which this book is placed because they do not sufficiently engage the text.  This thesis will show that the narrative fits into a focused sub-genre of literature called the African-American female bildungsroman and that the book conforms to the boundaries of this literary category.  This thesis will also define the African-American female bildungsroman, describe its characteristics, and explain why Angelou’s book best fits this classification. Both the African-American female bildungsroman and autobiography genre contain personal accounts of an author’s life experiences. But an African-American female bildungsroman is more than just an autobiography; it is a focused study that synergizes the characteristics of three different genres: the African-American, feminism, and the bildungsroman genres.




            Throughout the years, literary scholars have analyzed Caged Bird Sings from various literary perspectives, including feminist, African-American and autobiographical studies.  These paradigms also examine how Angelou’s use of first person heightens her ability to develop the plot, setting, theme, and characters.  But by placing the book into a broad genres, such as autobiography, slave-narrative, womanism or feminism, critics overlook the fact that readers may not get a full grasp of what Caged Bird Sings has to offer.

            When Angelou was asked to write her “autobiography as literature,” she did not know that she was on the cusp of a revolution in black literature. Before 1969, many black authors such as Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Booker T. Washington had written autobiographies.  But what makes Angelou’s book so different from these other authors is that she is able to construct “a culturally unique model of self” with help from a network of women within an oppressive segregated patriarchal society (Giberson 1). 

One famous book which is always linked to Caged Bird Sings is Richard Wright’s Black Boy, a story published in 1945 about the author’s hardscrabble boyhood in rural Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.  This Wright’s book is part of the canon of African-American autobiography, and it differs from other African-American autobiographies during and before his time because of the memoir tone.  The reason Wright’s and Angelou’s books were so different for their time is the fact that the reading public was used to books like Aren’t I a Woman? and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which depicts the African-American slave experience in the United States.  However, these stories are written in the slave-narrative tradition and are recounted in first person.  These traits do not establish the books as autobiographies since the characters “struggle to find a voice and claim selfhood in a world that repeatedly devalues all things feminine” (Brownley and Kimmich xiii).  These books are simply historical oral accounts of what is happening to the narrators during this period.  Though these books fall under the slave-narrative tradition, the characteristics of this paradigm are very constricting for us to categorize Caged Bird Sings under.  It would limit the way we would view the narrative and readers will not understand the full potential of what the book has to offer.

Some critics agree that both Wright and Angelou’s books qualify as an autobiography because they follow a particular formula.  One critic, Mary Jane Lupton, gives us a concise summary of what an autobiography approach should entail.  In Lupton’s book, Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion, Lupton explains that readers expect an autobiography to have four characteristics.  It must be written rather than spoken, recounted by a first-person narrator, manageable in length and organized in chronological order of the significant events of the narrator’s life (30).

By analyzing the genre further, Lupton notes that breaking down the word  “auto/bio/graphy” translates to “self/life/story,” or “the narrative of the events in a person’s life” (29). Autobiographers not only recount facts but also use them as a vehicle for expressing self-revelation, Lupton says (29).  But as both authors use their autobiographical narratives for “expressing self-revelation” there is a shift in the way each author reveals how they reach a point of maturity (Lupton 29).

Jerome Bruner, another critic of the autobiography, states in his essay “The Autobiographical Process” that the genre becomes “literary,” “inventive,” and “innovative” due to the fact that there is a “particular poignancy” to try and “redefine the nature and possibilities of the self” (49).  When Maya Angelou wrote her book, she didn’t feel that it would become an innovation in literary technique.  Her main goal was to write her “autobiography as literature,” and she needed to become “inventive” and “innovative” with the narrator in order for the book to become a piece of literature.

            Bruner believes that the period in which one writes can also be a contributing factor to a book.  This is a distinct characteristic of the autobiography genre and the slave-narrative tradition.  Angelou wrote her book during a period in which she was coming to terms with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the Vietnam War.  This setting of history, helps influence both the book’s tone and the development of its main character, Marguerite Johnson.  Jerome Bruner asserts that the setting is part of the inspiration in which an author writes:


                    the richness of Black and feminist life writings inheres, I suspect, not so much in the intensity of protest that they represent

                    as in the inventiveness of the literary traditions they call upon for their inspiration. Contemporary African-American

                    autobiography nourishes itself on a literary tradition that goes back to fugitive slave memoirs (many of them composed to

                    Abolitionist formulae), to the covert apologetics of a Booker T. Washington, to the ironies of a Frederick Douglass. 

                    Its literary power is in its tracing out these lines of descent through the perspectivalism of postmodern fictional sensibility. (50)


Following Bruner, we can say that in an effort to continue on the literary tradition of her forefathers and mothers, Maya Angelou takes what she read in her youth and builds on that “memoir” tradition, which in turn creates an autobiography of her life as literature.  In the text and speaking in the voice of the narrator, a young Marguerite Johnson, Angelou is able to take inspiration from the historical period around her and include this as part of her protest in the text.  What develops from this inspiration, according to Bruner, is a “personal expression, as a narrative expressing inner dynamics,” and the final image to the reader is a “cultural product as well” (39).  However, Angelou’s goal was to tell the story of a young African-American girl growing up in the South and to show how this young African-American girl overcame life’s obstacles in a mature and positive way.

            For years it was easy for critics to place Caged Bird Sings into the category of autobiography, since the author creates a narration of “self-reflection,” and the narrator weaves a continuing story surrounding the events that happened in her life (Lupton 29).  However, the autobiography genre only skims the surface of the African-American and feminist point of view and does not embrace the book into other genres in order to give the book a multi-dimensional feel.

            One aspect that distinguishes Angelou’s book is that strong female characters play prominent roles in the story.  This portrayal of a network of women leads some critics to believe that Caged Birds Sings is a feminist text and that Angelou breaks from the patriarchal literary formula of past literature by constructing an image of a matriarchal society.  In Caged Bird Sings, Angelou re-creates the matriarchal society of her childhood in which women are free to express their opinions, own their own businesses, and become self-reliant.  Mary Vermillion explains in her essay “Reembodying the Self” that Angelou re-creates a strong female network in which Marguerite is allowed to explore her femininity and make her own choices about her body.  “Angelou does not have to contend with nineteenth-century patriarchal ideology of ‘true womanhood,’” Vermillion writes, “She is freer to portray her rape, her body, and her sexuality” (71).  Though Vermillion may view feminist ideology in the text, we cannot fully classify the book as a feminist text because Marguerite was too young to understand the full spectrum of feminism. It is only after Marguerite gains knowledge, from other women, explores her own femininity, and gives birth to a child, that she finally realizes her potential as a woman.

            Other critics like Patricia Hill Collins have also wanted to place this book in the African-American feminist genre because of its focus on independent African-American women and the development of Marguerite’s sexuality.  But Marguerite strives for more than just self-realization and feminine self-identity.  She wants to belong to a community; her journey is about her life and the decisions she has to make; it is not just about her rape and her desire to voice her femininity afterwards.  Overall, Marguerite does not want be separated by a social consciousness and be considered a feminist.

            African-American scholars state that Caged Bird Sings is an African-American text because of its depiction of racism and Marguerite’s struggle to understand her African-American heritage.  However, the genre does not go far enough in exploring the relationships that Marguerite builds with other African-American women.  It fails to include her struggle in uncovering her femininity and her determination to move beyond her race to understand other points of view.

            Critics consider that Caged Bird Sings belongs under the womanism paradigm.  In “The History of Black Feminism,” Megan Feifer and Jennifer Maher summarize Alice Walker’s theory of womanism by stating that African-American woman or “feminist of color” is an “outrageous and audacious woman whose only interest is in learning and questioning all things.” The theory promotes “universalism” rather than supporting a “separatism” approach, which black feminism may generate, and it creates a dialogue for women so that they can speak openly about “the history of racial and gender oppression” as well as “celebrating their lives and achievements in a non threatening environment” (Feifer and Maher 6-7).

            But Caged Bird Sings does not fit under this genre very well since Angelou chose to take a “separatist” approach instead of a “universalist” one.  Even though Walker’s theory promotes “an avenue to foster relationships between black women and black men,” instead Angelou chose to highlight the relationships that Marguerite builds with other African-American females, not the African-American males (Feifer and Maher 6).  An example of this approach is the way in which Angelou depicts men in the narrative.  The men are viewed as cripples, rapists, thugs, and absent fathers; they are shown to be emotionally unstable only to use the women as a crutch for stability.  In addition, the men do not offer Marguerite any guidance as she matures into womanhood and Marguerite chooses not to engage any of the men for support.  This is Angelou’s biased stance that the network of African-American women was more effective and contributed more to her growth into maturity and womanhood than the African-American patriarchal system ever could. 

            All of these analyses of Angelou’s book provide valuable insight into the themes within the story.  Despite these extensive analyses, however, none of them accounts for all the details in the text that make Caged Bird Sings more than just an autobiography, feminist memoir, cultural product, or bildungsroman.  For a more comprehensive analysis, we must turn to a more specific critical paradigm: the African-American female bildungsroman.




            The transformation of a character is an important element in the African-American female bildungsroman, the autobiography genre, and the bildungsroman. As literary critics like Susan Gilbert have noted, Caged Bird Sings has also been categorized as a coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman.  This terminology is German, and means a “novel of transformation,” the growth of a character from childhood to maturity.  The bildungsroman is based on a male literary tradition and follows specific characteristics.  Four characteristics shape a bildungsroman.  First, it is “a story of a single individual’s growth and development with in the context of a defined social order.” Second, in order for the character to begin his/her journey, “some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the family or home setting.” Third, “the process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between the protagonist's needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order.” Fourth, “the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society.  The book ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in that society” (Hirsch 294-95).  Unfortunately, the characteristics of the bildungsroman focus mainly on the male literary tradition and do not include females.  As female authors continue to write books that have the same characteristics as the male bildungsroman, it is obvious that critics of the genre needed to expand the definition in order to include women.

             We can chart the female bildungsroman genre back to the eighteenth century when books that promoted moral instruction and survival tactics in the context of a patriarchal society, were once read among the educated, middle-class, society women.  The break in this traditional reading came when the feminist movement, which was progressing during the 1950s and 1960s, set forth an outlook of how women wanted to define their roles within society.  With this emergence, women no longer wanted to be second-class citizens; to be independent, to grow spiritually, and to have their own identity.  It was at this time that the female bildungsroman gained stature.  Women found a voice through feminism and began to change the traditional male literary conventions by creating two narrative styles.  Pin-chia Feng, author of The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, examines the characteristics of a female bildungsroman and states that first there is a “chronological apprenticeship, which adapts the linear structure of the male bildungsroman.”  Second, there is the “awakening” that generally occurs later in the heroine’s life and consists of brief, internal epiphanic moments.  Both the male and female bildungsroman share in the belief that there is a “coherent self, faith in the possibility of development, insistence on a time span in which development occurs, and emphasis on social context” (Feng 11-12).

            In order to understand the African-American female bildungsroman we must take the basic elements of the African-American, female bildungsroman, and male bildungsroman genres and combine them into a three-dimensional literary form.  The sub-genre of African-American female bildungsroman is less than twenty years old, but its characteristics have been around much longer.  Since critics have exhausted analysis of Caged Bird Sings under the African-American, feminist, and bildungsroman genres, the next logical step is to combine the genres into one to maximize further discussion.

            The African-American female bildungsroman has four distinct characteristics similar to the female bildungsroman, but it is unique in that it includes the element of race.  In order to understand why Caged Bird Sings fits so well in the category of the African-American female bildungsroman, we must define the paradigm and get an understanding of what makes up this focused sub-genre.

            First, there is the awakening, when the character becomes increasingly aware that she is not the blue-eyed blonde so coveted by society and begins to question her African-American heritage.  This leads to the character questioning her value as a human being and the social status of her race.  Second, the main character gains self-awareness through her relationships with a network of African-American women, who guide and support her in becoming self-reliant in a patriarchal society.  This network provides the character with moral guidance in the face of racial and gender adversity. Third, the character explores her feminine values and begins redefining her identity as she transitions into adulthood.  Finally, as the character reaches a point of maturity and independence, she concludes her journey of self-discovery.  The character reaches this pinnacle with the help of the women who have guided her.

            By taking these specific characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman and analyzing the character of Marguerite Johnson in terms, one can see that Angelou traced the “linear structure of the male bildungsroman” and created an “awakening” of the character.  Marguerite Johnson did not make this journey alone; however, Angelou also awakens the community of women that help guide Marguerite Johnson along on her journey by making them predominant characters within the text (Feng 11-12).  By giving voices to this community of women, Maya Angelou sacrifices the male characters by making them weaker than their counterparts and by not giving them an overall influence on Marguerite Johnson’s journey into maturity.

            In Caged Bird Sings, Marguerite also has a series of awakenings about what it means to be a black female in a segregated and racist patriarchal society.  But Marguerite did not make her transition into womanhood alone.  Again, a network of women, a key element of the African-American female bildungsroman guided her.  But Angelou’s story centers not only on the struggles associated with Marguerite’s development as a woman but on her development as a African-American woman.  Marguerite must learn to cope with her second-class status as an African-American as well as her inferior status as a woman.

            In creating Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou does two specific things: she concludes her coming-of-age story with the birth of her son, and she leaves the door open on this book to continue her life’s journey, a decision that results in five additional books.  These five books, considered part of a serial autobiography, show how the character continues to mature into a woman, a mother, and finally an artist.  This specific characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman is a very important but controversial aspect of the path that a character must take in order to reach a point of maturity.  For Marguerite Johnson, the journey was very clear.  She chooses to have sex out of wedlock in order to explore her femininity and relieve fears that she may be a lesbian.  She decides to have a baby, although that decision may not have been acceptable in her closed society.  And finally, she brings a difficult relationship with her mother to a more loving and mature level in order to build a stronger bond.  All of these coming-of-age aspects give the character a vantage point to look at life in a different way, even though critics such as Tischler do not believe it leads to a good Christian lifestyle.  While other critics such as McPherson and Buss feel that the realization of self-discovery that Marguerite goes through is a normal transcendence into femininity, motherhood, and womanhood.  But in order for Marguerite to move ahead with her transformation she must keep a sense of independence and spirituality—an important aspect as the character tries to find out who she is as an African-American female.

            To fully understand the complexities of Caged Bird Sings, critics must break away from the formulaic male literary tradition in order to understand the book’s many dimensions.  By using the African-American female bildungsroman sub-genre readers will have a focused view of the book.  By analyzing the narrative, it will be revealed that these elements all come together through Marguerite’s story in Caged Bird Sings, fulfilling the four characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman.





            The development of the plot and of Marguerite as a character clearly follows the characteristics of an African-American female bildungsroman.  From the first moment she realizes that the color of her skin makes her different, to the self-satisfaction she feels giving birth to her son, the reader is led through her journey of growth and transformation. 

            Marguerite’s awakening to the fact she is black is evident in the opening passages of the story:


                    Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream and my real hair, which was long and blond,

                    would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them,

                    after all the things they said about “my daddy must have been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup)

                    because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoken

                    the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel

                    fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair,

                    broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil. (Angelou 4-5)


In this passage, it is apparent that Marguerite is beginning her journey of transformation by questioning her African-American heritage. As a child, she is already aware that society considers her skin too dark and her limbs too big.  Therefore, she internalizes this hatred and considers herself ugly.  In a 1973 interview with Shelia Weller, Angelou describes the difficulty in overcoming adversity and purging herself of her internal shame:


I’m often asked, “How did you escape it all: the poverty, the rape at an early age, a broken home, growing up black in the South?” My natural response is to say, “How the hell do you know I did escape? You don’t know what demons I wrestle with.” (14)


            Following her awakening, Marguerite begins the struggle of overcoming the pain of realizing that her physical appearance places her outside the social ideal.  This awakening leads to the introduction of the second characteristic of an African-American female bildungsroman—guidance from a network of strong black women.  In her book Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet, Lyman B. Hagen gives us an example of this second characteristic:


                    Angelou’s treatment of female role models in Caged Bird — of her Mrs. Flowers and of her mother and

                    grandmothers — is even more positive than her treatment of African-American males. Since it is generally accepted that

                    children of her era developed stronger bonds with their mother than their father, it is not surprising to find Angelou
                    emphasizing the importance of mother and grandmothers. (69)


In her use of the female archetypes, Angelou makes an effort to “counter unflattering female types described in the earlier literature by James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving,” in which “grandmother matriarchs are depicted as silent, post-forty, corpulent, and passively working in the kitchen” Hagen states (69).

            By prominently displaying the female characters in the text and having the male characters less intrusive in the development of Marguerite Johnson, Angelou breaks from the literary patriarchal structure to create a network of women that replace the traditional male roles.  These women-Annie Henderson, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, and Vivian Baxter, are now matriarchs in their own world and are not the weak silent women of the past.

            Of these female characters, Annie Henderson is the one who has the strongest influence on Marguerite Johnson.  Serving as an anchor in Marguerite’s life, Annie Henderson provides guidance, love, a religious moral upbringing, and stability to the young girl.  Annie Henderson, an ancestral oral historian, constantly reminds Marguerite that the South still harbors a separation between whites and blacks.  Though this reminder stays with Marguerite throughout her childhood, this reality forces her to comprehend at an early age what it means to be black girl in the rural South.

            Annie Henderson, a modest woman, is probably the most independent character in the book.  She raised her children and grandchildren, she owns a country store, both blacks and whites look upon her as a pillar in the community, she is a religious woman, and she is not dependant on men for financial, physical, or mental support.  Despite her independence, however, Annie Henderson chooses certain paths in life that were looked upon by Marguerite as safe because they were tried and true formulas that were handed down from generation to generation:


                    Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths in life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone

                    before had found, and found to be the safe ones. She didn’t cotton to the idea that white folks could be talked to at all without

                    risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to insolently. In fact, even in their absence they could not be spoken to

                    harshly unless we used the sobriquet “They.” (46)


By handing down these “safe” paths to Marguerite, Annie Henderson gives a voice to the women that wanted to fight the system with peace and modest prosperity.  In a sense, Annie Henderson is queen of her own domain; she is able to own property, have her own money, pick and choose to whom she wants to loan money or give credit; she has substantial influence in her community and protects those that are in need.  She is a true matriarch in a male-dominated world, and she is a survivalist in a segregated community.  She is a strong role model for Marguerite as the girl begins her transition from child to woman.  Laying down the moral roots of her being, Annie Henderson teaches Marguerite to be self-reliant in the face of adversity, a type of instruction that is a component of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            Annie Henderson’s reserved yet independent voice in this community of women has led some readers to believe that she was not a fighter for rights of women and African-Americans and that her quiet voice may have been a hindrance to Marguerite.  Instead, the opposite effect happens, this quiet, independent voice did more to contribute to Marguerite’s self-discovery than did any of the other women that we will mention.  Critics like Dolly A. McPherson claim that Annie Henderson’s strict religious beliefs and rigid discipline gave Marguerite “clarity of vision” to the racially segregated, male dominant society she lived in.  By giving Marguerite these religious and moral roots, Annie Henderson was giving Marguerite a foundation.  McPherson also believes this. In her book Order Out of Chaos, McPherson explains that Annie Henderson is giving Marguerite the tools to survive life in order to make it in this world and that Annie Henderson must instill in Marguerite that God is an essential part of her life:


                    Through the purity of her life and the quality of her discipline, Mrs. Annie                                              

                    Henderson demonstrates that, by centering one’s being in God, one can                                                

                    endure and mitigate the effects of an unjust world. Angelou internalizes                                            

                    these silent lessons. Indeed, she owes much of her clarity of vision to her                                               

                    grandmother, who though not always able to protect herself and family                                             

                    from the exterior climate of hate, refuses to diminish herself as a human                                    

                    being by succumbing to bitterness or by engaging in aggressive,                                                 

                    retaliatory behavior. Like any caring adult who has been charged with the                                             

                    responsibility of child rearing, Mrs. Henderson knows that she must not                                                

                    only interpret society to Maya but also equip her with the pertinent skills                                           

                    and attitudes that will allow her to survive. While she is often unrelenting                                         

                    in her punishment (i.e., when she gives Maya a severe beating for using                                                

                    the expression “by the way”) and has little time or inclination to verbalize                                              

                    affection, Mrs. Henderson does manage to usher Maya safely through her                                             

                    childhood and early adolescence. (30)


In giving Marguerite Johnson moral roots to start life with, Annie Henderson unknowingly gives Marguerite a voice of self-discovery in which she is able to make her own clear judgments about the society she lives in.  This self-discovery questions Marguerite’s own role in society as an African-American female while she begins her metamorphosis into womanhood.  If it weren’t for Annie Henderson and her reserved moral tone, one would question whether or not Marguerite Johnson would be the same woman she is today.

            The character of Annie Henderson has a two-fold effect on young Marguerite Johnson, first.  She is, first of all the maternal figure that offers guidance to a child.  She helps Marguerite distinguish between right and wrong through her religious beliefs, and she helps her find a balance in the community that is unbalanced by racism.  Second, Marguerite sees her as a woman that is financially self-reliant in a male-dominated society.  This characteristic is prevalent throughout the book and is seen as part of Annie Henderson’s identity as a woman.  This aspect is important to bring up, since Marguerite is looking for role models as she transitions from being a child to a woman, again a characteristic in the African-American female bildungsroman.  By being a homeowner, landowner, business owner, and a woman who does not have to rely on men for financial support in a poor, Southern, rural, African-American community, Annie Henderson provides a unique insight into the role of the emancipated African-American female.

            However, Annie Henderson is not one to flaunt her money or material goods.  She is able to provide for her family, clothe them, put food on the table, and is able to offer a seat at her dinner table for uninvited guests.  The role of the emancipated African-American woman intrigues Marguerite for many years during her childhood.  It put her grandmother in a different light and she often compares other women in town to her.  There is respect given to her grandmother in town that Marguerite admires and relishes.  Marguerite remembers a story told to her by a neighbor about her grandmother; it cements the notion in Marguerite’s mind that her grandmother was no ordinary black woman: she was Mrs. Annie Henderson, a respectable business woman:


                    The judge asked that Mrs. Henderson be subpoenaed, and when Momma                                            

                    arrived and said she was Mrs. Henderson, the judge, the bailiff and other                                              

                    whites in the audience laughed. The judge had really made a gaffe calling                                          

                    a Negro woman Mrs., but then he was from Pine Bluff and couldn’t have                                      

                    been expected to know that a woman who owned a store in that village                                           

                    would also turn out to be colored. The whites tickled their funny bones                                     

                    with the incident for a long time, and the Negroes thought it proved the                                     

                    worth and majesty of my grandmother. (47)


Since Annie Henderson was able to provide for Marguerite and the rest of her family, Marguerite thought about who would provide for her in the future.  Certainly, Marguerite would view this ideal as part of her own self-identity and self-worth and would pass judgment that a man did not have to support her. Marguerite wanted to be an emancipated African-American woman.  Annie Henderson and Marguerite Johnson were no longer tied to the bonds of slavery.  Women could own property, own businesses, have their own money, and survive in a male-dominated world. To Marguerite, this was her future.

            Marguerite’s future has a setback after her rape by Mr. Freeman. She is sent back to Stamps, Arkansas, from St. Louis to live with her grandmother again because she went into a self-induced silence after the violent death of Mr. Freeman, and her family felt that living back in the country would give Marguerite a chance to heal her spirit.  Her grandmother introduces her to Mrs. Flowers, an independent and educated woman in the Stamps community.  Mrs. Flowers’ uniqueness comes from money, stature in the community, education, mannerisms, and the female bonds she has created in the Stamps community.  Even though Annie Henderson and Mrs. Flowers seem civil with each other, a reader may observe that there is a bit of a class struggle, between the two women but the narrative points out that it was “formal education” that separated the two women (Angelou 91).  Through her introduction to Mrs. Flowers, Marguerite continues her journey and begins another re-awakening.  This re-awakening is an intellectual epiphany, another one of the distinctive characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            Marguerite keenly watches the relationship between Mrs. Flowers and her grandmother, since this was an opportunity to see how these two single women of a different class structure, education, and religion, communicates and interacts with one another.  She enjoys the fact that Mrs. Flowers was black Stamp’s answer to aristocracy and that she carries the grace of a “gentlewoman.”  Because Marguerite was too young to understand the relationship between her grandmother and Mrs. Flowers, she is ashamed whenever the two women speak with each other. She states that her grandmother “persistently used the wrong verb or nothing at all” and Marguerite “hated her grandmother for showing her ignorance” at times (91).

            These childish observations made by Marguerite show a distinct pattern of how this character has begun her transformation from immaturity to maturity.  The introduction of Mrs. Flowers to Marguerite, considered a significant life-changing event in the plot, gives Marguerite a chance to reflect on her life and consider other possibilities other than being black, poor, and living in the South.  Mrs. Flowers throws Marguerite a “life line” into this new world of intellectualism and class structure.  Marguerite describes Mrs. Flowers as if she were a character in a novel.  She admires her because


                    she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English                                     

                    novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs                                        

                    racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of the                                             

                    roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones                                        

                    and crumpets. […] It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be a                                          

                    Negro, just by being herself. (92)


For Marguerite, her identity as a black woman was always in question, but Mrs. Flowers changed all that.  Marguerite notices how Mrs. Flowers carries herself with style and grace in their community, giving Marguerite a new perspective that black women could achieve many things.

            Marguerite’s “lessons in living” begins with Mrs. Flowers explaining to her that this was going to be a difficult journey to get Marguerite to speak (97).  She reminds Marguerite that “language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals” (95).  Mrs. Flowers continues her “lessons in living” by telling Marguerite that she must be “intolerant of ignorance but understanding of literacy” and that “some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors (97).

            In her own way, Mrs. Flowers tries to explain to Marguerite that someone like her grandmother, who does not have the formal education, was brighter than most folks and Marguerite should understand her shortcomings and respect her for what she had.  Although Mrs. Flowers had a formal education, she still believes in oral history and what “country people called mother wit.”  She states, “those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations” (97).   Mrs. Flowers’ goals to awaken Marguerite’s senses are simple: respect those who were not as educated, read, listen, and learn, and remember your ancestry.  These were the golden rules that Marguerite took note of and continues to look back on as she transitions into womanhood.  Mrs. Flowers’ lessons were vital to Marguerite as she looks for information from this network of women so she can reach her goal of being an independent woman, a characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman.  This is the “measure of what a human being can be” in Marguerite’s child-eye view, and this type of woman is what she wanted become.

            If we view this transformation from the author’s perspective, Maya Angelou takes these few chapters involving Mrs. Flowers and Annie Henderson and divides it into two parts, the first being the class struggle between the educated and uneducated black woman and the comparable differences between the “sophisticated” versus “provincial” role model that Marguerite wants to aspire to (Lupton 139).  These divided paths are very important to Marguerite as she continues her sojourn into maturity.  She begins to understand the meaning of what it is to be a black educated woman, but it takes a woman like Mrs. Flowers to teach it.  Both women have a powerful influence over Marguerite, but only she can decide which path to take in life.

            As Marguerite moves forward with her transition into womanhood, we question what other outside influences she may have had. What books did she read?  Were there other women that helped guide Marguerite?  One can only guess that Maya Angelou as a young child read authors such as Frances Harper and Anna Julia Cooper and that Mrs. Flowers, who probably read these authors herself, recommended them to the girl.  These authors would have shaped Marguerite’s thoughts on what kind of woman she wanted to be.  Marguerite knew she was emancipated, but she probably wondered how she could use this freedom.  She probably questioned whether she could be a silent emancipated black woman like her grandmother, or she could “exert power through intellect” like Mrs. Flowers. Black authors like Harper and Cooper believed that women, white or black, “did not have to be confined to a domestic sphere of influence” (Carby 99).  Both authors felt that women could “exert power through intellect.” In Reconstructing Womanhood, Hazel V. Carby examines Harper’s and Cooper’s ability to “exert power through intellect” position.  Carby strongly believes that the education of females helps bring about social changes and moves women into a different sphere where they are no longer subjected to domestic positions, a goal that Marguerite wanted to achieve:


                    Cooper and Harper strongly defended the need for the higher education of                                           

                    women and exposed the ways in which arguments against educating                                          

                    women were tied to ideologies of female sexuality which defined                                                      

                    intellectual women as “less desirable” sexual objects for exchange in the                                           

                    marriage market. Cooper’s analysis acknowledged that the education of                                         

                    women would radically change their social relations with men but                                                          

                    replaced the patriarchal emphasis on how men regarded intellectual                                           

                    women with the assertion that higher education made women more                                           

                    demanding of men. (99)


For the emancipated black women in the South, the ideals that Harper and Cooper spoke about gave women the guidelines to help improve their lives. Like Annie Henderson, who tells Marguerite to remember her ancestors, Mrs. Flowers gives Marguerite a history of how women have progressed since emancipation She also gives an outline of what her future may hold if she continues her education.

            Another proponent of exerting “power through intellect” is Dolly A. McPherson, who believes that Mrs. Flowers not only helps Marguerite break her silence by showing her the intellectual side of life, but also shows her how to grow as an individual (Carby 99).  McPherson affirms that the


individual is, of course, the essential base from which an autobiographer builds relationships to community and family. Throughout Angelou’s autobiography, one finds variations on the common theme of interplay between the individual and the group. Central to this configuration is the discovery that the individual self is really a series of selves evolving around a core of values, opportunities, and experiences. Indeed, one can identify situations in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that foreshadow the evolving elements of Angelou’s later “self.” There is, for example, Mrs. Flowers’ acceptance and encouragement that allow the child to experience the reality and power of her own worth. (15)


As McPherson points out, in order for Marguerite to discover the “individual self,” Marguerite must start to evolve from what she has learned and begin to put use that knowledge to build her own worth (15).  As Mrs. Flowers works with Marguerite to stimulate her self-worth, the reader can now begin to follow the growth of Marguerite as she moves forward with her internal epiphanic awakening and watch her as she learns to be an intellectual individual, an aspect of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            The next character in this network of women to help Marguerite with empowerment is her mother, Vivian Baxter.  Even though Vivian Baxter was not around to care for Marguerite during her early formative years, Vivian seems to have stepped into Marguerite’s life at the right time to give her the maternal guidance she needs.  Unfortunately, critics such as Lyman B. Hagen and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos feel that Vivian’s absence in Marguerite’s formative years is a selfish act on Vivian’s part so she could gain and explore her independence instead of being a young single mom raising two children.

            Hagen feels that “Vivian found it too inconvenient to care for her two children or found it too incompatible with her life style” (68).  She takes the same stance as Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, who states in Hagen’s book that the “cavalier dumping of her children appears as a failure to come to terms with the matriarchate (her mother) and this treatment is a disturbing weakness in the book” (71).  Both Hagen and Demetrakopoulos feel that Vivian Baxter should not have gotten the accolades that Angelou gives her in the book.  Instead, both feel that Vivian Baxter fails as a mother and does not offer Marguerite the guidance when she most needed it:


                    Angelou’s mother is seen as “shockingly callous” and insensitive by                                           

                    sending the little girl back to stamps after being raped. Maya is                                                       
                    traumatized by events and full of unwarranted guilt. The mother’s                                                           

                    behavior here and at other times does not justify the favorable treatment                                          

                    she got from Angelou and this action, Demetrakopoulos says, is “puzzling                                                

                    and unsettling.” Vivian is as guilty as Bailey, Sr. of betraying their                                                          

                    children. But Mother Vivian is idolized by both Johnson children and                                         

                    neither would dream of questioning her less-than perfect mothering. She is                               

                    all that is glamorous and movie-life desirable to them. (71-72)


Hagen and Demetrakopoulos may not agree with the way Vivian Baxter conducts her life, but both critics fail to realize that the knowledge that Marguerite Johnson gains from this experience was part of her awakening.

            Readers and critics may have a certain bias about Vivian Baxter since she left a young Marguerite with Annie Henderson to raise her.  However, since family displacement is considered normal for survival in the African-American community during the early part of the twentieth century, this abandonment can be seen as Vivian Baxter’s way of trying to balance out her life.  Rhoda J. Maxwell, in Images of Mothers in Literature for Young Adults, characterizes Vivian Baxter’s judgment by saying that “women sought the balance of juggling their own needs” first and that “the most difficult stumbling blocks to a balance between a mother’s needs and those of her family is the pedestal that society places many mothers on” (10).  Vivian Baxter understands what her role and responsibilities are but she needs to find her own self-worth first.  In order to gain her independence, Vivian Baxter had to make the hard choice of letting someone else raise her child so that she could move forward and reach her full potential. Maxwell explains, “Women must grow beyond the comfort range and be willing to take the chance of making mistakes. The right to make mistakes is an important aspect of gaining independence” (10).  Later on, Vivian Baxter teaches Marguerite these important lessons after she gives birth to her first child.

            While Marguerite did not feel as if her mother had abandoned her, she did yearn for her mother’s love and at times fantasized about an ideal relationship with her mother; nevertheless, Marguerite understood her mother’s freedom and independence.  If anything, Marguerite looks up to her mother and wants to follow in the same path she took.  At first, when Marguerite and Bailey Jr. meet their mother for the first time, after several years of absence from their lives, both are awestruck at their mother’s beauty.  Marguerite cannot believe that this beautiful woman, whom they call mother, had two children. Marguerite does not carry any resentment towards her mother; instead, she is thrilled to think that she can call this beautiful woman “mother”:



                    To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect                                              

                    power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow. We had been received                                

                    by her mother and had waited on the edge of our seats in the overfurnished                                   

                    livingroom… […] We were both fearful of Mother’s coming and                                                   

                    impatient at her delay. It is remarkable how much truth there is in the two                                         

                    expressions: “struck dumb” and “love at first sight.” My mother’s beauty                                               

                    literally assailed me. Her red lips (Momma said it was a sin to wear                                           

                    lipstick) split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked                                           

                    see-through clean. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her ears and                                               

                    seemingly through the walls to the street outside. I was struck dumb. I                                          

                    knew immediately why she had sent me away. She was too beautiful to                                    

                    have children. I had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called                                             

                    “Mother.” Bailey on his part fell instantly and forever in love. I saw his                                      

                    eyes shining like hers; he had forgotten the loneliness and the nights when                                               

                    we had cried together because we were “unwanted children.” He had                                           

                    never left her warm side or shared the icy wind of solitude with me. She                                        

                    was his Mother Dear and I resigned myself to his condition. They were                                     

                    more alike than she and I, or even he and I. They both had physical beauty                               

                    and personality, so I figured it figured. (Angelou 58-9)


Even if Vivian Baxter was absent from her children’s lives, her image as mother is still engraved in their minds.  For an eight-year-old child to view her mother after all these years was more of shock than anything else.  Even though Bailey Jr. relates well with his mother and starts to build a bond with her immediately based on her beauty, Marguerite does not get that mother/daughter bond she wants.  Instead, she instinctively separates herself from her mother by how she and Bailey Jr. fares against their mother with their “physical beauty” (59).  Marguerite’s bond with Vivian may not surface now as Marguerite is re-acquaints with her mother, but Vivian tries everything in her power in order to establish a bond between her and the children.  For a young Marguerite who is only looking at the physical aspects of the relationship, it can be said that she has not matured enough to realize the potential of building a bond with her mother other than physical appearance.  After a long absence from her children, Vivian realizes that she must impress her children in some fashion in order to gain some sort of bond between them.  By making a grand entrance as the beautiful, long-lost mother whom the children longed for, Vivian succeeds in creating a mother/child bond with both children, even if it is only on a physical level.

            By creating this physical bond based on beauty between her and Marguerite, Vivian inadvertently triggers certain emotions and fundamental questions within Marguerite who is beginning to question her place in society and her role as a maturing individual.  In separating herself from her mother, Marguerite begins to understand her own self-identity and feminine values, both of which are characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman.  She may not be as pretty as her mother or brother, but she realizes that in order to become a woman she will have to move beyond beauty.  Marguerite understands that beauty is a feminine value in her community and that it is a growing part of her self-identity as she transitions into womanhood.  Vivian understands the value of femininity and self-identity, and she uses this to build a bond with her children, which in turn triggers questions within Marguerite about her femininity and self-identity.  But Marguerite understands that if she cannot be as beautiful as her mother, she has other attributes that will have to suffice.  Even the rest of the Baxter family knew that Marguerite was not pretty, and at times comment on her looks.  Her Uncle Tommy mentioned at one time, “Ritie, don’t worry  ’cause you ain’t pretty.  Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse.  You smart.  I swear to God, I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind.”  As an eight-year old girl, Marguerite understands that being educated and not beautiful would have to be part of her self-identity (60).

            As much as Marguerite loves her mother’s beauty, she also loves the way her mother carries herself in society.  She loves that her mother commands an audience not only from her children but also from men.  If Annie Henderson has the look of a dowdy mother and Mrs. Flowers has the look of a classy, educated woman, then Vivian Baxter is the epitome of femininity in Marguerite’s world.  Vivian knows how to use her beauty; to her it was part of her independence as a woman.  She may not have been as educated as a Mrs. Flowers, but her beauty reigned over whatever shortcomings she has.  Marguerite notices this also; she equates beauty with power and understands that her mother uses this to her advantage:


                    The Syrian brothers vied for her attention as she sang the heavy blues that                                             

                    Bailey and I almost understood. They watched her, even when directing                                                

                    their conversation to other customers, and I knew they too were                                                      

                    hypnotized by this beautiful lady who talked with her whole body and                                             

                    snapped her fingers louder than anyone in the whole world. (65)


In Marguerite’s eight-year old world, this new role model, the beautiful mother, is something she desires.  Vivian Baxter was showing Marguerite that flaunting femininity was part of being a woman.  More than anything, Vivian plays off her femininity as a game to win men over and a means to gaining money, power, and stability.  She shows Marguerite that there is nothing wrong with being feminine as long as you have control over the situation.  

            As Marguerite got older, she starts to view her mother in a more mature manner.  Vivian was now living in California and had a different life than what she had in St. Louis.  Her children were now teenagers and she tries to relate to them in a different way.  She wants them to have their own independence and be more adult.  This prompts the children to be more mature and to look at life differently.  By creating this atmosphere of independence, Vivian was forcing her children to rely on themselves and not on her.  Vivian was not at home much, so this independence forces Marguerite to solve problems on her own.

            Even though Marguerite looks up to her mother with great admiration, she does not fully understand her mother’s way of life until she is older.  These questions about her mother’s livelihood arose.  While visiting her father in San Diego, a fight broke out between Marguerite and her father’s girlfriend, Dolores Stockland.  In a rage of fury, Dolores called Marguerite’s mother a “whore.”  From this point, Marguerite questions for the first time her mother’s way of life: “If there was a chance of truth in the charge, I would not be able to live, to continue to live with Mother, and I so wanted to” (239).  Marguerite does not want to believe her mother was a “whore” but she has nothing by which to gauge it.  Vivian isn’t a regular mother like Annie Henderson; she doesn’t hold down a regular nine to five job.  Instead, she hangs around with a bunch of gamblers and hoodlums and flaunts her femininity in front of men to get what she wants.

            As Marguerite views her mother in a different light, she questions her own admiration towards her mother but does not lose respect.  Here again, Marguerite tries to separate herself from her mother’s identity as she ponders the lifestyle her mother has chosen.  Marguerite wants a role model, but she questions whether her mother is the role model she wants to look up to.  Vivian never really tells her children about her personal life.  She shows her children what she does, but she never sits down and explains how it supports her and how it makes her feel.  If there are any mistakes that Vivian makes while raising her children, not telling her children what she does in life for a job is a mark against her.

            As of now, Marguerite has taken small steps on her way to becoming an independent African-American woman.  It is at this point that Marguerite reaches the third characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman: the exploration of her feminine values and the beginning of re-defining her identity during the transition into adulthood.  Even though Marguerite Johnson has an inner battle to fight on racism as to which path to choose from as she begins her ascent into maturity, she still understands that she has to strive to be better than her grandmother, aspire to be just as educated as Mrs. Flowers, and to be as strong willed as her mother.  Nevertheless, with racism and segregation embedded in America, Marguerite questions whether she can escape the past that still haunts women like Annie Henderson and Mrs. Flowers.

            Marguerite has a reason to be concerned about her future role as a woman and mother; she does not want to be stuck with the same options as Mrs. Flowers or her grandmother by which the segregated South dictates who she is to become as a woman.  Michelle Wallace states in Eva Lennox Birch’s Black American Women’s Writing that “slavery produced two distinct female archetypes: one who had been privileged by pre-Civil War emancipation, or was held by dint of sexual or domestic service in special favour; the other a poor, strong, but nevertheless rebellious woman” (145).  Wallace believes that Mrs. Flowers came from the “privileged pre-Civil War emancipation era” where she struggles to be an independent woman but never fully achieves what feminism was to conquer in the 1960s, which was equality.  In addition, by being segregated in the South, Mrs. Flowers can only be admired by the people in her community; she would be limited in her recognition as a woman of stature in the white section of Stamps.  Marguerite wants to break from this mold.  She does not want to be caught up in the generational stigma of being the emancipated woman.  Her independence as an African-American woman must break new ground, and she set forth to do this.  This is part of her self-identity.

            Marguerite’s determination to battle racism comes into play when she applies for a job as a conductorette at the Market Street Railway Company.  With this defining moment in her life, Marguerite takes all that she has learned from the community of women and synergizes this knowledge to get the job that she wants.  She uses her education, self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-identity, and self-reliance to push through the discrimination and racism placed before her from this white-dominated patriarchal society.  Once again, familiar characteristics that fit within the African-American female bildungsroman.

            The Market Street Railway Company had an opening for a conductorette, and Marguerite decides to apply for the position after her mother gets upset with her skipping school.  When Marguerite goes to apply for the job, she is met with a lot of resistance from the secretary in the hiring manager’s office. Marguerite after all was black, and the secretary with the Southern accent was white:


                        The miserable little encounter had nothing to do with me, the me of me,                                     

                        any more than it had to do with that silly clerk. The incident was a                                                            

                        recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally                                        

                        came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and                                                

                        Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to                                                

                        another, we were bound to duel to the death. Also because the play must                                             

                        end somewhere. I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a                               

                        fellow victim of the same puppeteer. […] Her Southern nasal accent sliced                           

                        my meditation and I looked deep into my thoughts. All lies, all                                                     

                        comfortable lies. The receptionist was not innocent and neither was I. The                                      

                        whole charade we had played out in that crummy waiting room had                                          

                        directly to do with me, Black, and her, white. (Angelou 260)


Marguerite’s anger intensifies at the fact that a Southern white woman was snubbing her.  Her mind raced with different thoughts on how to handle this situation.  What would her grandmother do?  Mrs. Flowers?  Her mother?  Marguerite views the world differently at this point.  If Marguerite wants the job she has to be persistent with her efforts. She engages the Negro organizations to help her out with this problem but most of them turned her down.  The Negro organizations, which are run by men, did not understand why Marguerite wanted this particular job when there were so many factory jobs available due to the war.  They were reluctant to help her.  Though Marguerite was angry that the management team at the railway office was snubbing her, and her own community didn’t support her efforts, Marguerite didn’t let her anger overcome her rational thought.  This maturity level is a point of transition for Marguerite as she approaches adulthood.  As part of the last characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman, Marguerite reaches a certain maturity level and finally achieves in becoming an independent woman in order to reach her pinnacle.  By having a rational and mature sense of thought about her predicament, Marguerite fulfills part of the characteristic that makes up the African-American female bildungsroman.

            Marguerite appears at the railway company and sits in the hiring manager’s office lobby on a daily basis.  This is her personal protest against racism and discrimination.  She wants this job.  During this period, Vivian watchs her daughter carefully.  There are so many things that can be said to her daughter but she wants her to learn how to conquer this challenge on her own.  Vivian feels that Marguerite is old enough now to understand what is going on, and Marguerite feels empowered and independent enough to manage this predicament on her own.  This maturity strengthens Marguerite’s self-identity and helps push her forward as an adult as she tries to make rational decisions on her own.  She does not look to her mother for advice, this is her battle, and Vivian respects her daughter’s wishes:


                    During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long                                              

                    path toward mutual adult admiration. She never asked for reports and I                                            

                    didn’t offer any details. But every morning she made breakfast, gave me                                         

                    carfare and lunch money, as if I were going to work. She comprehended                                          

                    the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy. That I was no glory                                                

                    seeker was obvious to her, and that I had to exhaust every possibility                                        

                    before giving in was also clear. (261)


            One day as Marguerite was leaving the house to go sit at the hiring manager’s office again, Vivian decides to say something to her:


                    On my way out of the house one morning she said, “life is going to give                                     

                    you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and                                 

                    pray, then you can wait.” Another time she reminded me that “God helps                                      

                    those who help themselves.” She had a store of aphorisms which she                                            

                    dished out as the occasion demanded. Strangely, as bored as I was with                                               

                    clichés, her inflection gave them something new, and set me thinking for a                                  

                    little while at least. Later when asked how I got my job, I was never able                                         

                    to say exactly. I only knew that one day, which was tiresomely like all the                                       

                    others before it, I sat in the Railway office, ostensibly waiting to be                                                

                     interviewed. The receptionist called me to her desk and shuffled a bundle                                     

                    of papers to me. They were job application forms. She said they had to be                                           

                    filled out in triplicate. I had little time to wonder if I had won or not, for                                     

                    the standard questions reminded me of the necessity for dexterous lying. (262-263)


Armed with the support of her mother’s wisdom, the life lessons learned by Mrs. Flowers, Annie Henderson’s moral upbringing, pure perseverance and the sense of empowerment, Marguerite achieves her first victory as a mature adult by getting the job as a conductorette.  This is Marguerite’s first victory as an adult.  This African-American woman perseveres over racism by calmly protesting the injustice of inequality.  Even though this perseverance shows that Marguerite achieves a certain level of maturity, shows strength, perseveres in the midst of adversity, and handles this predicament in an independent manner with little or no advice from family, Marguerite still has to reach her pinnacle as described in the African-American female bildungsroman.  She does not reach this pinnacle until the birth of her child when the metamorphosis into an independent mother occurs. 

            Critics such as Patricia Hill Collins view this sense of empowerment as a change in “consciousness.”  In her book Black Feminist Thought, Collins states that for Marguerite, this raised “consciousness” would be a natural progression on her next stage to maturity.  Marguerite is fighting as an African-American and as a woman to discover her self-identity.  Collins finds added support for her view in the words of black feminist Claudia Tate,


                    If a Black woman is forced to remain “motionless on the outside,” she can                                            

                    always develop the “inside” of a changed consciousness as a sphere of                                     

                    freedom. Becoming empowered through self-knowledge, even within                                              

                    conditions that severely limit one’s ability to act, is essential. (111)


Marguerite’s empowerment is a natural progression into womanhood; it is also a characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman in that she is now self-reliant in a patriarchal segregated society.  With the help from other women, she is able to achieve her goals. As Collins states, however, “This journey towards empowerment lies within the individual woman.”  Marguerite continues on her journey towards womanhood, but now the challenge is much higher. She needs to summon all of her inner strength and understand her femininity to become a mother (112).

            As Vivian and Marguerite’s mother/daughter relationship continues to grow, Marguerite looks to her mother for guidance and support; she also begins to look at how she communicates with her mother.  This communication is an important part of Marguerite’s development as she transitions into adulthood and womanhood, for her relationships with other women, including the relationship with her mother, help define her as a woman, a characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman.  A trait that Vivian has and that Marguerite has a hard time relating to, is the way her mother views life, in a very up-front and in a simplistic manner.  Throughout the text, Vivian gives quick one-liners or simple cliché stories to her children whenever they ask a question about life or had a problem they could not handle.  Marguerite may have expected more of a moral biblical type of sermon like her grandmother would have given, but Vivian is not one to mince words.  By having a blunt, upfront attitude and conversing on an adult level, Vivian is able to strengthen the relationship with Marguerite, who is trying to accept Vivian as a mother with whom she can speak openly.  This openness between Marguerite and her mother is a rite of passage into womanhood for Marguerite as she continues to explore her feminine values and build relationships within this network of women.  One example of this occurs when Marguerite starts questioning her own sexuality.  As Marguerite starts to develop physically as a young woman, she notices that her voice is “heavy,” her “hands and feet” are “far from being feminine and dainty” and her “breasts” are “sadly underdeveloped” (266).  She starts reading books on lesbians and hermaphrodites and begins to think that she is a lesbian.  One day, Marguerite goes to her mother and tries to ask about her sexuality, but when she went to ask the question, she is too ashamed to pose the question:


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

                           “Sit down, baby. Read this.” Her fingers guided my eyes to VULVA. I                                              

                        began to read. She said, “Read it out loud.”

                        It was all very clear and normal-sounding. She drank the beer as I read,                                               

                        and when I had finished she explained it in every-day terms. My relief                                              

                        melted the tears and they liquidly stole down my face. […]

                           “There’s nothing to worry about, baby. It happens to every woman. It’s                                            

                        just human nature.” […]

                           “I thought I maybe I was turning into a lesbian.” […]

                           “A lesbian? Where the hell did you get that idea?” (268-270)


Vivian’s openness with Marguerite on the topic of sex is a rite of passage for Marguerite as she explores her femininity.  As Marguerite tries to explain where she got the idea that she is a lesbian, Vivian starts to laugh, but not at Marguerite, she laughs at her daughter’s misconception about sexuality.  Marguerite may have gotten the terms correct, but no one explained to her what a woman goes through as she is physically and sexually developing.  Vivian explains to Marguerite, “I made arrangements, a long time ago, to have a boy and a girl. Bailey is my boy and you are my girl. The Man upstairs, He don’t make mistakes. He gave you to me to be my girl and that’s what you are. Now, go wash your face, have a glass of milk and go back to bed” (271).  Vivian’s demeanor when she discusses sex and the female anatomy with her daughter is serious and straightforward.  Her tone is clinical and to the point, but she does carry out her explanation of the female body with compassion and motherly love.  Discussing sex and the female anatomy is an important growth process for Marguerite as she tries to understand her own femininity.  She has now reached a point of maturity where she can discuss sex and the female anatomy with her mother.  She may not understand it and is embarrassed by posing the questions, but Vivian is able to hold her hand and guide her through the steps of what it means to become a woman, thus understanding her own femininity.  Redefining her identity as she transitions into womanhood and accepting feminine values handed down from Vivian are both characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            By discussing sex, femininity and the female anatomy, Vivian creates a mother/daughter bond between them.  Vivian strengthens Marguerite’s self-esteem as only a mother could, and she gives her the guidance to understand her own femininity.  This mother/daughter bond is part of the culture of femininity, and it is an important growth process for Marguerite.  As Marguerite begins her ascent into womanhood and maturity, her bond with women, her communication with women, her image of herself in society all come together at this point.  Vivian gives Marguerite the push into womanhood and maturity that her daughter needs by being there as a mother, a friend, a confidante, and teacher.  Thus, Marguerite receives the final building blocks to complete her journey.

             As Marguerite continues to mature and become more independent, she enters the first stage of adulthood, the fourth phase of the African-American female bildungsroman.   She is thrust into womanhood as she explores her own sexuality and then into motherhood as she gives birth to her first child.  Although she has internal conflicts as she thinks about abortion, pre-marital sex, family, and motherhood, she chooses to have the baby on her own and take responsibility for her own actions.

            However, some critics do not feel that the experience of giving birth marks Marguerite’s transformation into maturity.  Some argue Marguerite reaches maturity when she got the job as a conductorette since she breaks through the barriers of racism to get the job she wants.  But this only confirms that she is fighting racism it does not show a progression of her femininity.  By having a child and realizing that she is now a woman and a mother, she is able to present herself as a well-rounded adult and to fulfill the final characteristic of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            Choosing to end a book with the birth of a child out of wedlock and in her teen years poses several controversial viewpoints as to why the author believed that the character reached a point of maturity.  One critic, Nancy M. Tischler, believes that even though Maya Angelou’s coming-of-age story is a piece of “pioneering” writing, the narrative does not serve as a “model for Christian faith” (31).  In her book Women, Literature, and Transformation: A Voice of Her Own, Tischler states that Angelou


                    has chronicled her love affairs, her artistic growth, her political                                                  

                    involvements and her changing sense of self. Such works, though by no                                     

                    means models for Christian faith or action, are invaluable for the facts and                                     

                    feelings that they lay bare and for the occasional flashes of elegant                                                     

                    expression or passion. They open up our understanding to other lives and                                     

                    allow us to extend our sympathies as we share those experiences. (31)


Though Tischler may not approve of the lifestyle that Angelou led in her youth, she believes that there is a lesson to be learned from the book—even a positive moral lesson.  

            Since the Christian reader may feel compassion towards the character, Tischler believes that Marguerite Johnson would fall into the category of a “fallen woman.”  This “fallen woman” is more “colorful” to the Christian reader because there is an emphasis on being bad instead of good. Tischler believes that


                    the character of the bad girl is always colorful. Evil invariably seems more                                 

                    fascinating than good. The judgments of good and evil are themselves                                            

                    mirrors of the values of our society. For example, a girl is seen as “fallen”                                        

                    if she has slept with someone before marriage. On the other hand, the Fall                                       

                    is much more impressive. It involves the whole temptation in the Garden                                                

                    of Eden, the desire to know more than God wanted humans to know, the                                             

                    rebellion and refusal to serve their Maker. The fall of woman is merely                                      

                    physical-the illicit breaking of the hymen. (82)


Tischler’s argument that Marguerite could be considered a “fallen woman” is controversial in several ways.  First, we know from the text that the character was raised in a strict religious setting.  Marguerite’s decision to have sex outside of marriage and a baby out of wedlock opens up a flurry of questions as to why Marguerite chose this path.  Can we consider this a point of rebellion against the Christian establishment?  Second, if the character reaches a point of maturity and chooses this path, did she understand the difference between good and bad?  Finally, if the character understands the consequences, did she know that she was not conforming to society’s rules?

            It is not uncommon for some in Christian society to place Marguerite into the “fallen woman” category because they feel that the character should have taken a different moral path.  Critics like Tischler may hold a character like Marguerite Johnson to a higher moral plane because of her religious upbringing, but the character chooses this course knowing full well that this would be a difficult journey for her and the child.  This rebellious or non-conforming nature is an African-American female bildungsroman characteristic, and it is part of a character’s growth and maturation whether it conforms to society’s wishes or not.  Another critic, Helen M. Buss, takes a different approach as to why the character has a child at sixteen.  In “Reading for the Double Discourse of American Women’s Autobiography,” Buss writes that she believes that the birth of Marguerite’s son “marks the girl’s achievement of womanhood” and helps cement a mother/daughter bond between Vivian Baxter and young Marguerite (107).   Buss also believes that by a literary standpoint the reader is offered a “happy ending” since the plot problems are “resolved within the strictures of society.”  From her viewpoint these two items suggest that Angelou wants to deconstruct the character in order to reveal the “self” and plot out a “girl’s growing consciousness” that will bring her to the point of “maternality” and maturity (107).

            Marguerite’s final phase begins when she decides to have sex with a male companion to ensure that she’s not a lesbian.  In doing so, she decides that the sexual encounter must be on her terms and under her control.  The sexual encounter is to be on her terms and under her control. After the sexual act with the neighborhood boy, she feels unsatisfied and unfulfilled.  Once again, she questions her femininity and her sexual orientation.  She is confused by her feelings because she expects something more, something that makes her feel like a woman.  Three weeks later, she is pregnant.

            During her pregnancy, Marguerite contemplates several moral life changing decisions alone.  She isn’t going to blame the man she slept with for getting her pregnant.  This is her responsibility:


                    I had accepted my plight as the hapless, put-upon victim of fate and the                                                

                    Furies, but this time I had to face the fact that I had brought my new                                         

                    catastrophe upon myself. How was I to blame the innocent man whom I                                      

                    had lured into making love to me? In order to be profoundly dishonest, a                                       

                    person must have one of two qualities: either he is unscrupulously                                                            

                    ambitious, or he is unswervingly egocentric. He must believe that for his                                                

                    ends to be served by all things and people can justifiably be shifted about,                                             

                    or that he is the center not only of his own world but of the worlds which                                              

                    others inhabit. I had neither element in my personality, so I hefted the                                      

                    burden of pregnancy at sixteen onto my shoulders where it belonged.                                               

                    Admittedly, I staggered under the weight. (276-277)


Marguerite shows her empowerment and independence to control the situation; this time it is her own sexuality and her body.  Part of being an adult is to have a consciousness about the situation generated by one’s actions.  In the passage above, Marguerite shows how she is able to think through the situation logically and clearly.  She understands that the responsibility of having a child falls on her “shoulders.”  She knows that she cannot blame others for her strife.  She doesn’t want to play victim.  This logical progression of thought for Marguerite shows how she understands the dilemma she is in and how she plans to solve the problem.  She is an adult soon to face greater responsibilities (276).

            During her pregnancy, Marguerite contemplates other parts of her social commitments, school life, job, and the relationship with her mother and brother.  The world has taken on a new meaning.  She no longer views life with a child like stance.  Marguerite chooses to hide her pregnancy from most of her family and friends.  She confides in her brother, who is away at sea, and speaks about having an abortion, “he cautioned me against telling Mother of my condition. We both knew her to be violently opposed to abortions, and she would very likely order me to quit school.”  Marguerite chooses to keep her child and continue with her current situation in life (277).

            Three weeks before the baby arrives, Marguerite chooses to write a note telling her mother and Daddy Clidell about her predicament. Her mother takes the news in stride and doesn’t chastise Marguerite, after all this was “Vivian Baxter Jackson, hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between” (280).  After the baby arrives, Vivian and Marguerite cared for the baby together.  It is Vivian’s sense of duty as a woman and a mother to bring her daughter through this threshold of motherhood and womanhood.  Marguerite is scared; she does not know how to hold the baby correctly, change his diapers, or care for her newborn.  Vivian squashes those fears.  She knows her daughter is ready to be a mother and that Marguerite just needs that extra push that only a mother could give:


                        She turned the light on and said, “Look at the baby.” My fears were so                                     

                        powerful I couldn’t move to look at the center of the bed. She said again,                                      

                         “Look at the baby.” I didn’t hear sadness in her voice, and that helped me                                               

                        to break the bonds of terror. The baby was no longer in the center of the                                             

                        bed. At first I thought he had moved. But after closer investigation I found                           

                        that I was lying on my stomach with my arm bent at a right angle. Under                                                

                        the tent of blanket, which was poled by my elbow and forearm, the baby                                              

                        slept touching my side.

                           Mother whispered, “See you don’t have to think about doing the                                                       

                        right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”

                           She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and                                                           

                        went back to sleep. (281)


Marguerite has a sense of self-satisfaction as she lies next to her baby.  She is a mother; she is an African-American woman, and she is now an adult.  Her journey has ended, and she has reaches a pinnacle in her life that brings her to this threshold of womanhood.  She understands what it means to be a mother and that it is a natural feeling.  Marguerite has now reached her pinnacle, the last stage of the African-American female bildungsroman.

            After the birth of her child, Marguerite Johnson has a self-revelation, which adds a “vital dimension” to the character.  She has closes several opportunities and is determined to move on to other aspects of her life, such as her improving relationship with her mother and the raising of her newborn child.  In her essay “Initiation and Self Discovery,” Dolly A. McPherson examines this self-discovery and states that “Angelou, the young adult, has succeeded in freeing herself from her cage by assuming control of her life and fully accepting her womanhood,” thus giving Angelou a closure to her coming-of -age story.  She observes that this “rebirth” of Angelou as a “young mother” and her discovery of a “creative self” are important because they form a “necessary part of her spiritual and intellectual development” (44).

            Caged Bird Sings is the story of Marguerite Johnson, a young African-American female who experiences several epiphanic awakenings throughout the course of her journey from child to adult.  Marguerite learns from a network of women who teach her traditional moral values, independence, education, and self-reliance.  As Marguerite continues to mature, she learns who she is as a woman.  She questions her sexuality and her femininity and tries to have her own unique female identity.  Marguerite reaches the pinnacle of her journey when she is thrust into motherhood with the birth of her baby.  With this childbirth, Marguerite completes her journey towards maturity by understanding what it means to be an African-American woman, a mother, and a daughter.  Marguerite brings all these elements together in this passage:


                    The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless                                              

                    horror of wavering purpose, which was youth. […]      

                    The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces

                    of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

                    The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often ,met with amazement,

                    distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by

                    survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance. (264-65)


Marguerite’s journey into womanhood is complete as she begins her new matriarchal family.  She is independent and proud to be an African-American woman and mother, and she has built a relationship with a network of women that have guided her to this point in life.  Thus Angelou brings her coming-of-age story to an end fulfilling the characteristics of the African-American female bildungsroman.






            Caged Bird Sings is as an important piece of literature today as it was back in 1970. Each generation of readers finds that the book offers much more to its audience than just the life of a young black girl coming of age in the 1930s and 1940s. Since 1970, critics have tried placing this multi-dimensional book into several broad literary genres in order to capture the essence of the book’s appeal, and every few years critics find new evidence in the narrative to justify their own analysis that the book belongs in a particular genre.

            Even though Angelou chose to write Caged Bird Sings as an autobiography, little did she know that her book would go on to win awards, be banned by school districts for its frank discussion of rape, be part of the American literary canon, and cause debate among critics on how the book should be read. This book is an important part of the American literary canon because it tells a story about African-American life that not many people have witnessed or experienced. The book also generates controversy with its depiction of prominently portrayed African-American female characters, child molestation, rape, family displacement, female independence, and a plethora of other subjects. What makes the book more unique than a book like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi is its subtle writing style. The book doesn’t promote anger, fear, revenge, or African-American politics; instead, the book reads like a folk story or an oral history.

            Caged Bird Sings broke other literary conventions with the author revealing her molestation and rape as a child. It caused a controversy in school districts around the nation that had the book on a required reading list because it considered the rape of a child too frank of a discussion for younger readers. By Angelou revealing her rape and the struggle to cope with it, she opened the door for other authors to discuss their childhood issues in a candid way.

            By categorizing Caged Bird Sings under the African-American female bildungsroman, we set a precedent for other books to follow. The sub-genre gives this multi-dimensional book a focused outlook for the reader to understand its full potential and it opens up the possibility for other books to fall under this genre.

             Using Caged Bird Sings as a model for the African-American female bildungsroman, critics will identify other books that could fit into this category, such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple or Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. Walker’s book is the story of a young African-American woman growing up in the South. Like Marguerite, the main character, Celie, must overcome a patriarchal society, racism, poverty, and family displacement to establish a sense of self-confidence. She too relies on a network of women to guide her through her evolution into independent womanhood. 

            Moody’s book, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is an autobiographical depiction of the author’s childhood in the South during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The main character, Essie May, moves from city to city in the South looking for work to support her family that owns a failing farm. During this period, Essie encounters the prejudice against Southern blacks during the Civil Rights movement and experiences the deep division between whites and blacks. To overcome this adversity, Essie puts herself through school and joins several African-American political organizations that support the Civil Rights movement. During this time, Essie reflects on what it means to grow up as a young African-American woman during the Civil Rights movement.

            Both of these stories depict young women struggling to find self-identity, self-realization, and independence. Each woman encounters an awakening of their femininity with the help of a network of women who offer guidance and education. In turn, these building blocks help transform them into mature, independent women. Using Caged Bird Sings as a model, readers and critics alike will see that these books and others fall into this unique sub-genre of African-American female bildungsroman. Therefore, these stories will no longer be limited to a one-dimension analysis.

            But is the African-American female bildungsroman sub-genre right for every book written by an African-American female author? The sub-genre is definitely a focused category, and it does give a book certain restrictions that critics may not want to lock themselves into. However, as critics explore different genres in writing, especially in world literature, the African-American female bildungsroman may be obsolete in years to come. Critics may also want to build on some of the characteristics of the sub-genre in order to include more books as been done with the womanism genre. In fact, the womanism genre may eventually merge under the female section of the African-American female bildungsroman sub-genre in order to expand its characteristics.

            When writing one’s life story for an audience, the writer is concerned with painting a picture for the reader that is accurate and full of personal identity. Caged Bird Sings does both for the average reader, but for the serious literary critic, the book offers many different viewpoints and causes a stir as to where to place this book within a particular genre. But when Angelou wrote her book back in 1968-1969 she just wanted to write her autobiography as a piece of literature. Who knew that forty years later Caged Bird Sings would be considered more than a piece of autobiographical literature but also a model for other books to follow under the focused sub-genre of the African-American female bildungsroman.




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---. Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974.

---. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. New York: Random House, 1976.

---. The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House, 1981.

---. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Random House, 1986.

---. A Song Flung Up To Heaven. New York: Random House, 2002.


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