It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance with which Maya viewed this incident, saying "If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes" (Angelou, Chapter 19).
This is not the only time that violence and black males are associated in the novel, nor the only time that such an association has an impact on Maya's character and outlook on life. One day, her brother Bailey comes home after first witnessing the body of a black man pulled from a pond, then being forced to help load the body in a truck and humiliated by the white man instructing him, finally asking, "Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?'" (Angelou, Chapter 25). Maya's understanding of race and identity is largely constructed by these random yet pervasive incidents, almost all of them involving males more than females, if not exclusively. Ingrid Pollard contends that this incident leaves Maya with a fear of "the threat of death to the men in her family," further complicating her relationship with the other men in her life and perhaps having a large effect on her ability to form relationships later in life (Pollard, 115). Bailey's importance to Maya shows itself again in this later scene in the book, demonstrating that his impact on her life has not diminished much over the years.
It would be wrong, of course, to insist that the only relationships of any significance in Angelou's life were with men. Her relationship with her mother grew stronger when she lived with her, and she always appreciated her mother's commitment to fairness and honesty, even when being otherwise irrational (Angelou, Chapter 26). Also, Maya was raised by her grandmother, whom she and Bailey call Momma, and this very strong figure in the black community of Stamps instilled many qualities of strength and wisdom in Maya. But the masculine influences on Maya might have been stronger than her grandmother's; at one point Maya makes a stand against some white people and Momma hears about it: "Maya's headstrong, principled stand may seem correct in a fair world but Stamps was not that. There were too many risks in such a stand for her Momma..." (Pollard, 116). Momma ends up sending Maya back to live with her mother for fear of what her attitude will do in the Stamps community. So although there are strong female influences in Maya's life, they end up just as disconnected and with apparently less influence than the male influences.
There are two important male figures that come into Maya's life towards the end of the book, however. The first of these is Daddy Cidell, a successful and kind man who marries Maya's mother and moves the family to San Francisco. Though Daddy Cidell is not very well educated, his intelligence, kindness, and lack of either arrogance or humility draw Maya to him. Though his entrance into her life comes a little too late and after too much incident to make him a full father figure, his influence on her character is still huge, leading her to the observation that "The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination, as are intelligence and necessity when unblunted by formal education." (Angelou, Chapter 29).
The second and perhaps most important male figure in all of Maya Angelou's life is her son, born shortly after her graduation from high school. Her relationship with Guy's father was basically non-existent, though at least it was not violent, but the love she eventually learned to show to her son shows how she was finally able to overcome the detached relationships of her life and find the love she always wanted. The male influences in Maya's life made her wary, but also strong and capable of great emotions. Her son taught her to trust them.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1983.
Manora, Yolanada M. "What You Lookin' at Me for? I Didn't Come to Stay': Displacement, Disruption, and Black Female Subjectivity in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged…