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Free Study Guide-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou-Summary
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Chapter 24

Summary

Maya needs to go to the dentist, for she is suffering from a tooth that is rotten to the gums. The only dentist in Stamps is Dr. Lincoln, a white man. The nearest black dentist is in Texarkana. Since Momma lent money to Dr. Lincoln during the Depression, she thinks that he might treat Maya, as a return favor.

When she enters the white section of town with Momma, Maya’s pain becomes secondary to the insults of "powhitetrash" children. Although her rotten tooth is still driving her crazy, she forces the pain into the background so that "pieces of sanity" can emerge. She concentrates on not moaning and on walking straight with her head held high. She thinks, "If one was dying, it had to be done in style if the dying took place in whitefolks’ part of town."

When Momma leads Maya into Dr. Lincoln’s clinic, the two of them enter from the servants’ entrance, for they do not want to upset anyone. In spite of their courtesy, the nurse is extremely rude to them, and Dr. Lincoln refuses to treat Maya. He says that he would rather put his hand into a dog’s mouth than into a "nigger’s." Momma, who is very upset, tells Maya to wait outside as she goes inside to speak to the doctor. Standing outside the clinic Maya envisions her grandmother in the role of a superhero. She imagines Momma going into the clinic and turning Lincoln into a doctor who cares "for dogs with the mange, cats with the cholera and cows with the epizootic." She then imagines her turning the impertinent nurse into a "crocus sack of chicken feed." When Momma comes out of the clinic, she looks tired. She has obviously not convinced Dr. Lincoln to change his mind, for she tells Maya that they are going to Texarkana. In Texarkana, Maya’s tooth is extracted.


When she returns home, Maya tells Bailey about her fantasy revenge. Later Momma tells them she extracted ten dollars from Dr. Lincoln for his insult. Momma and Uncle Willie have a good laugh over the white man’s evil behavior and Momma’s extortion, but Maya prefers her version of the story to the truth.

Notes

This chapter is a masterful blend of tragedy and comedy, involving Maya’s rotten tooth and her fantasy involving Momma as a superhuman pitted against the evil white dentist. It is tragic that Maya, a child, receives no regular dental treatment, for there is no black dentist in Stamps; the closest one is in Texarkana. As a result, one of Maya’s teeth has rotted and is causing her great pain. Momma decides to take Maya to see Dr. Lincoln, a white dentist. During the Depression, she had lent him money, and she is sure he will do her a favor. Travelling to the dentist office in the white section of town, Maya is taunted by the white children. In reaction, she forces her pain into the background, stops moaning, and holds her head high. It is certainly tragic that children, because of the prejudice taught by their parents, can be so cruel to one another.

The real tragedy of the chapter occurs when Maya and Momma arrive at Dr. Lincoln’s office. Knowing that they would not be welcome in the front door, they enter through the servants’ entrance. Even then, the nurse is horribly rude to them, treating them less than human. Then Dr. Lincoln refuses to treat Maya, even though she is in great pain. He says that he would rather treat a dog than a "nigger."

There is some comedy within the chapter. When Momma sends Maya outside while she talks to the dentist, Maya imagines her as a superhero overpowering the evil white dentist. In truth, Momma is able to shame Dr. Lincoln into giving her ten dollars in payment for the insult he has inflicted. It is a small victory, but Momma and Uncle Willie are able to laugh about it. Maya, however, is saddened to learn that her grandmother is not as powerful as she imagined.

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