I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In the offices of the Market Street Railway Company, the receptionist seemed as surprised to see me there as I was surprised to find the interior dingy and the décor drab. Somehow I had expected waxed surfaces and carpeted floors. If I had met no resistance, I might have decided against working for such a poor-mouth-looking concern. As it was, I explained that I had come to see about a job. She asked, was I sent by an agency, and when I replied that I was not, she told me they were only accepting applicants from agencies.

The classified pages of the morning papers had listed advertisements for motorettes and conductorettes and I reminded her of that. She gave me a face full of astonishment that my suspicious nature would not accept.

'I am applying for the job listed in this morning's Chronicle and I'd like to be presented to your personnel manager'. While I spoke in supercilious accents, and looked at the room as if I had an oil well in my own backyard, my armpits were being pricked by millions of hot pointed needles. She saw her escape and dived into it.

'He's out. He's out for the day. You might call tomorrow and if he's in, I'm sure you can see him'. Then she swivelled her chair around on its rusty screws and with that I was supposed to be dismissed.

'May I ask his name?'

She half turned, acting surprised to find me still there.

'His name? Whose name?'

'Your personnel manager'.

We were firmly joined in the hypocrisy to play out the scene. 'The personnel manager? Oh, he's Mr. Cooper, but I'm not sure you'll find him here tomorrow. He's Oh, ... but you can try'.
'Thank you'.

'You're welcome'.

And I was out of the musty room and into the even mustier lobby. In the street I saw the receptionist and myself going faithfully through paces that were stale with familiarity, although I had never encountered that kind of situation before and, probably, neither had she. We were like actors who, knowing the play by heart, were still able to cry afresh over the old tragedies and laugh spontaneously at the comic situations.

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 fellow victim of the same puppeteer.

On the streetcar, I put my fare into the box and the conductorette looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt. 'Move into the car, please move on in the car'. She patted her money changer.

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.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical book written by Maya Angelou in 1969. It tells the story of her younger life in the American South in the 1930s.

This excerpt describes her, aged 15, trying to get a job as a conductor on a streetcar.

Taken from: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author / Creator: Maya Angelou
Publisher: Random House
Date: 1969
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: Nov.23915