The Struggle for Self: Oppression’s Effect on Identity

As much as we like to think we forge our own identities, much of who we are is determined by outside forces. Oppression is a powerful force in shaping the identities in Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and in her poems “When I Think About Myself” and “Harlem Hopscotch”. The exploitation, discrimination and violence faced by African-Americans in the mid-20th century cause Angelou’s characters to have complex relationships with their identities. Beginning in childhood, racism severs the characters from their black identities and limits their ability to overcome the dissatisfaction that stems from their place in society. Thoughts become the characters’ main mode of expressing their anger towards racism. Community has the ability to rebuild the characters’ relationships with their race, but, ultimately, self-acceptance becomes their greatest tool in resisting oppression. Angelou explores the effects of oppression on identity through the lens of the African American experience.

Depictions of childhood illustrate the role of racism in shaping identity. Angelou uses childlike motifs and structure to convey how racism becomes ingrained in the minds of black children. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Marguerite’s fairy godmother fantasy shows a self-loathing that stems from racism, “… 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” (Angelou 4). Marguerite does not simply yearn to be white, but instead believes whiteness is her true identity. This reveals the drastic effect of racism on Marguerite’s view of herself. She is imprisoned in a constant state of self-consciousness that stems from her belief that she will never be adequate because she is black. Creating a fictional white version of herself grants her momentary freedom, “In a society attuned to white standards of physical beauty, the black girl child cries herself to sleep at night to the tune of her own inadequacy. At least she can gain temporary respite in the impossible dreams of whiteness” (Smith 365). Because she is a child, Marguerite cannot see that her feelings of inadequacy are created by a prejudiced society; instead she blames herself. Self-consciousness follows Marguerite throughout her life, showing the immense impact racism faced in childhood has on one’s sense of self. Just as Angelou uses the fairy godmother fantasy to show the effect of racism on Marguerite’s childhood, Angelou uses song-like structure in “Harlem Hopscotch” to show racism’s effect on the children of “Harlem Hopscotch”. Lines that describe African-Americans’ mistreatment are intertwined with lines from a childhood song to show how the children process racism, “One foot down, then hop! It’s hot. / Good things for the ones that’s got. / Another jump, now to the left. / Everybody for hisself” (Angelou 50). The children cannot comprehend the immense hardship that racism will bring them. Creating a song out of this hardship helps them understand how racism will impact their lives. The song gives them instructions to navigate their oppressive society. Because they understand how to play a game of hopscotch, creating a game makes the prospect of facing a lifetime of racism more manageable for the children. Because the development of personal identity begins in childhood, demonstrating the internalization of racism and self-hatred by children emphasizes the significant role oppression plays in forming identity.

First-person narrative allows the reader to fully understand the effect of racial oppression on one’s sense of self. In I Know Why the Caged Bird, “When I Think About Myself” and “Harlem Hopscotch,” the characters live according to white society’s rules in order survive. These rules force them to suppress their feelings and frustrations, making it difficult to understand their true emotions. The speaker in “When I Think About Myself” conforms to standards placed by her white employers to earn the money she needs to live. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Marguerite lives in a segregated, southern town where African-Americans are expected to tolerate disrespect from even the lowest class of white society. “Harlem Hopscotch” lays out a set of instructions for black children to follow in order to get by in a world plagued by racism and violence. Because of these rules, the characters’ actions do not reveal the effect of racism on their identity. Instead, inner dialogue provides this insight. The lines “I say yes ma’am’ for working’s sake. / Too proud to bend / Too poor to break, / I laugh until my stomach ache” (Angelou 26) show how the African-American speaker of “When I Think About Myself” is trapped by her circumstances. The disrespect she tolerates from her young white employer causes her emotional pain, but her financial status and the lack of opportunity for black women forbid her from acting on her frustration. First person narrative reveals the anger and disappointment she feels towards herself because of her inability to change her circumstances. Similarly, Marguerite cannot reveal her reaction to racism due to her place in Stamps society. When observing Momma’s harassment from the “powhitetrash,” Marguerite sits and watches quietly from the safety of the Store but thinks, “I wanted to throw a handful of lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles” (Angelou 30). Marguerite recognizes the role she is forced to play as a black girl in Stamps, Arkansas, and this impairs her ability to express her anger towards racism through actions or words. Marguerite’s role also prevents her from outwardly expressing the pride she takes in Mama’s self-restraint in the face of the powhitetrash’s taunting. “Through her growing racial awareness, she is able to articulate her observations of racism, if not aloud then at least in her thoughts” (Lupton 62). Marguerite’s thoughts reveal how each observation of racism impacts her personal identity, by either reinforcing her self-hatred or by strengthening her pride in her blackness. The final lines of Harlem Hopscotch illustrate the speaker’s ability to defy the rules of the game of life simply through thought. “Both feet flat, the game is done. / They think I lost, I think I won” (Angelou 50) shows that the speaker has not physically defied the rules set by white society. “They think I lost” (Angelou, 50) conveys that to the outside observer, the speaker still looks to be conforming to society’s expectations of them. However, the speaker’s thoughts break the rules of the game and reveal a positive outlook on their identity. The speaker’s ability to find self-worth shows the speaker has not allowed oppression to completely undermine their identity. In all three works, the characters’ true reactions to racism are best understood through internal dialogue.

A community’s reaction to racism has a powerful influence on individual identity. Angelou includes events like the graduation scene in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to reinforce this idea. They stand out because they digress from the primary plotline and do not significantly alter Marguerite’s transition from child to mother or her journey from Stamps to San Francisco. Their purpose is to show the importance of community in shaping Marguerite’s character. Marguerite’s graduation ceremony examplifies the collective identity of the black community of Stamps. Marguerite feels despair after hearing the statements of the white politician,. “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louis’s,” (Angelou 174). The politician’s statements are followed by the unplanned singing of the Negro National Anthem. The black pride shown through this action overpowers Marguerite’s despair, “I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful, Negro race,” (Angelou 179). This statement affirming her black identity is a sharp contrast to the grief she shows just moments earlier. This shows the impact that her community has on her self -image. Connection with other African-Americans replaces self-hatred with pride in her black identity. While not an outright protest against oppression, this community action shows Marguerite that she does not have to accept racism, “Here is the action on the part of a member of the black community–Henry Reed’s improvised leading the audience in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”–that at the same time avoids an irreversible confrontation with the white oppressor and permits the black community to feel its dignity and superiority” (Walker 100). This moment of shared dignity strengthens the community and Marguerite as an individual. While this scene shows community coming together in the face of oppression, “When I Think About Myself” shows a community broken by oppression. The first two stanzas address discrimination faced by the speaker, while the third stanza shows the commonality of the speaker’s experience in her community, “My folks can make me split my side, / I laughed so hard I nearly died, /The tales they tell sound just like lying, / They grow the fruit, / But eat the rind” (Angelou 26). By showing the effect of racism on the African-American collective, Angelou implies that the speaker’s despair grows not only from her own mistreatment but also from the mistreatment of her community. The speaker’s broken self-image is, in part, a response to the way she has witnessed society treat her race. Personal identity shifts drastically, either positively or negatively, in response to communal experiences.

After a lifetime of facing racism, characters’ ability to embrace their identity gives them the strength to tolerate the oppression they will inevitably face as African-Americans. Marguerite’s final and most concrete role in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is motherhood. The birth of her son marks her transition from a girl stuck between childhood and adulthood to an adult woman. “Just as gratefulness was confused in my mind with love, so possession became mixed up with motherhood. I had a baby. He was mine. Totally mine. No one had brought him up for me” (Angelou 250). Racism, sexism, displacement, and sexual violence torment Marguerite throughout her development, leading to complete breakdown of personal identity. However, the physical possession of a child gives her new maternal identity stability that she had previously lacked. “The birth of the baby brings Maya something totally her own, but, more importantly, brings her to a recognition of and acceptance of her full, instinctual womanhood. The child, father to the woman, opens the caged door and allows the fully developed woman to fly out. Now she feels the control of her sexual identity as well as of her social identity. The girl child no longer need ask, embarrassed, “What you looking at me for?” No longer need she fantasize any other reality than her own” (Smith 374) Motherhood marks a turning point in Marguerite’s relationship with herself. The child gives purpose to her life and, in turn, liberates her from her prison of inadequacy. She no longer bases her identity on the self-hatred created by racism, but instead on her son, who affirms her new role as mother as a positive one. She has found a place in the society she previously felt rejected by. The final stanza of “Harlem Hopscotch” shows the speaker’s choice to embrace the struggles faced in childhood as a result of poverty and racism. The closing statement “Both feet flat, the game is done. / They think I lost I think I won” (Angelou 50) shows the complete embrace of identity made with a clear “I” statement. At this point the speaker has completed the “game” of life. The conscious decision of the speaker to celebrate black identity despite living in a racist society is the speaker’s act of resistance against oppression. While every step of the game sets the speaker up for failure, upholding a strong identity allows the speaker to successfully finish the game, “To live in a world measured by such blunt announcements as ‘food is gone’ and ‘the rent is due,’ people need to be extremely energetic and resilient. Compounding the pressures of hunger, poverty, and unemployment is the racial bigotry that consistently discriminates against people of color. Life itself has become a brutal game of hopscotch, a series of desperate yet hopeful leaps, landing but never pausing long” (Neubauer 134). It is the speaker’s ability to land but never pause long that allows them to finish the game with their identity unscathed by society’s expectation of self-hatred placed on African-American. By rejecting self-hatred, the speaker is able to remain hopeful, despite the racism that faces them. Instead of closing with a definitive line that conveys strength, the speaker of “When I Think About Myself” closes with “I laugh until I start to cry, / When I think about my folks” (Angelou 26). The speaker’s humorous tone shows her mental separation from her devastating experience. This separation gives her the ability to passively resist the exploitation from her white oppressor. “Psychological distance becomes the persona’s mightiest weapon, a distance born of slowly drawing one’s head out of the proverbial lion’s mouth” (Ramsey 142). Psychological distance mitigates the pain racism causes her. Furthermore, speaking about her “folks” as a whole shows the connection of the speaker to her race. This connection gives the speaker additional strength in fight against the “lion”, or the oppressor. While this poem does not contain overt celebration of racial identity like “Harlem Hopscotch”, it illustrates another embrace of racial identity and community in another form. Embrace of identity in any form provides the tools for tolerating and even resisting oppression.

The shifting identities of characters in Maya Angelou’s memoir and poetry reflect the journey made by African-Americans to find lasting sense of self in the face of oppression. Angelou’s accounts of childhood show the devastating effects of internalized self-hatred on lifelong identity. Her narrative style allows the reader to fully experience characters’ reaction to racism by revealing their inner dialogue. In addition, she describes collective African American identity to show how community’s response to racism affects the identity of the individual. Finally, she shows how the embrace of one’s identity aids in the struggle against oppression. While not all of us share Angelou’s experience as an African American, anyone who has faced oppression can relate to the struggle of her characters.

Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou uses the settings and people of her childhood to illustrate the development of her moral and social outlook on life. During this time in her life, she is moved from place to place and from family to family. It is this exposure to different ways of life that help Maya decide what kind of person she is going to be.

Religion is a major facet of Maya’s development in Stamps. Reverend Thomas, the presiding elder over the district that Momma’s church is in, comes to visit Stamps every three months. When he comes to town Momma always puts him up for the night and feeds him. Even though the family does not care for him much, Momma is still obliged to do this. It is her Christian duty, so Momma never questions fulfilling this obligation.

Momma is the most direct source of Maya’s spiritual upbringing. She is the keeper of divine law for the Henderson family. Whenever she witnesses a spiritual infraction, her punishment is swift and thorough. These punishments are not dealt out of spite, but out of concern for Maya’s eternal soul. Momma’s lessons are meant to keep Maya on the narrow road to the afterlife, the only true way for the black man to overcome his oppression. Momma teaches with her actions, as well as her punishments. When Momma refuses to show any kind of reaction to the powhitetrash girls she teaches Maya an important lesson about strength, through her stoic refusal to be upset by these girls. Maya knows that “Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won.” (Angelou 33.)

During her time in Stamps, Maya learns of the harsh reality of racial inequality, and from an early age, through most of the book, Maya follows the examples and lessons taught to her there. Stamps consists of two separate parts of town, the black and white communities. These two communities developed through the rigid segregation that is found all throughout the South, not just in Arkansas. “In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like” (25). Through this segregation Maya learns many of the racial standards that exist and must be followed in the South, during the depression.

Uncle Willie teaches Maya the perils of breaking social customs. Unlike Momma, he only punishes the children when they break a social taboo. The best example of this is when Uncle Willie whips them for laughing in church. This infraction was severe enough that Uncle Willie felt he should do the punishing. Uncle Willie teaches his lessons in other ways, sometimes without even knowing it. He was crippled as a child, but he has never let that hurt his pride. When teachers from Little Rock stop in at the store, he stands without his cane and talks to them. This shows Maya that even the worst adversity can be overcome, if only for an afternoon.

After Maya moves to St. Louis with her mother and Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman molests and rapes her. When he molests her she does not know what was happening and she thought he was being kind to her. Later, Mr. Freeman rapes her, and he tells her never to tell or he will kill Bailey. When Maya has to testify at trial, she relates that she “couldn’t say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close” (85). Maya fells that she has been bad and this leads her to make a moral decision, to lie on the stand or to dishonor her family. Maya decides that her family’s honor comes before honesty. This also leads to her decision to stop talking, instead of having to continue lying about the rape. Her unwillingness to talk eventually leads to her being shipped back to Arkansas.

After Maya returns to Stamps, Mrs. Flowers teaches her lessons of a more personal nature. Her lessons do not involve religion or society, but they are just as important to Maya’s growth. Mrs. Flowers is the first adult to treat Maya as more than just a child. She teaches Maya to overcome her trauma and speak again, through making Maya recite poetry. This helps cultivate Maya’s love for the written word and inspires a new love for the spoken word. It also teaches Maya that being black doesn’t mean that she cannot be educated and that she “must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.” (99).

The lessons Maya is taught by the interactions of the black and white communities skew her views of race. When she first enters Whitefolksville, it’s as if whites are a different species to her, like they are aliens and not another race. This idea is enforced when she goes to work for Mrs. Cullinan. Mrs. Cullinan has many extravagant things that Maya would never be able to own. Among these are things Maya never even knew existed, like a fork specifically for salad. “Soup spoons, gravy boat, butter knives, salad forks, and carving platter were additions to my vocabulary and in fact almost represented a new language” (106). Her employment leads to her first minor victory over white society. When Mrs. Cullinan refuses to use Maya’s real name, and instead insists on calling her Mary, Maya breaks some of her good china. That action gets her fired, but also makes Mrs. Cullinan call her by her real name.

While Maya lives with her mother in San Francisco, she decides to get a job as a trolley car conductor. There had never been a black woman conductor, of a trolley car, in San Francisco. When she goes to apply, the secretary puts her off and reluctantly tells Maya the personnel manager’s name. It was not Maya’s motivation to win a victory for black people, but at that moment Maya decides “I WOULD HAVE THE JOB. I WOULD BE A CONDUCTORETTE AND SLING A FULL MONEY CHANGER FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.” (268). This event shows that Maya has decided to no longer be held back by her color. She has stood up and will not be put back down by any one.

Maya uses her new feelings of independence to fulfill her need to know about sex. When Maya becomes pregnant, she faces the greatest challenge to her moral code. She says, “the little pleasure I was able to take from the fact that if I could have a baby I obviously wasn’t a lesbian was crowded into my mind’s tiniest corner by the massive pushing in of fear, guilt and self-revulsion” (284). Momma’s lessons about religion and Uncle Willie’s lessons about proper conduct have been in vain; Maya is now a single pregnant black girl. Maya must overcome this guilt at being a single mother and show the strength to hide the pregnancy. The pregnancy must be hidden from her mother so that Maya can finish school and her mother will not make her drop out. After her son is born she must also develop the courage to raise him and realize that she is not going to hurt him. She learns through his birth that there is a price to pay for independence and sometimes it is a high price to pay.

The stories Maya tells in this book show how that all her life experiences helped to shape her moral compass, and from them the reader gains an understanding of why Maya Angelou is who she is. To explain the strength, spiritualism, independence, and pride that she has gained from the people she has known Maya shows that Momma gave her God, Uncle Willie gave her the skills to live as a black person, and her mother gave her the freedom to assert her independence. Everyone who reads this book should come away with an idea of what helped give Maya the drive to become such an accomplished person.