I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou: The Struggle Of Black Women In Marginalized Community
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is incredibly unapologetic. From her early childhood to her late teens, Maya already confronted many challenges in her life. These early challenges included moving away from her parents, undergoing self-hate, confronting racism in the south, surviving rape as a youth, and lastly, developing her love for literature. Throughout the novel, you see Maya transform into one newly developed human being after another.
In the prologue, Maya is reciting a poem to herself for church and forgets it immediately. For church, she imagines herself wearing a “lavender, taffeta dress.” With this image, she visions herself as a “movie star” and how that contributes to her dream of being a white girl. She states, “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”. She refers to herself as a nuisance to her race, wishing that she was white and saying that she was cursed by a fairy godmother as if this was a fairytale that gone wrong. Afterwards, she trips on the way to the bathroom and pees on herself. This brings great embarrassment to her, adding yet another event to her unfortunate tales of being a southern black girl. Maya was only three years old when she and her brother, Bailey, were sent off to live with their Grandma Annie also known as “Momma” and their Uncle Willie in Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents were newly divorced and this decision made it much easier for the children to live in an environment that was not so broken. Furthermore, their parents sent them there to live in a rural community that could be more fitting for them. However, life in Stamps is not easy for them at all. They witness a many quite sickening incidents that were considered reasonable in the time and place: 1930’s America in the South. For example, Maya and Bailey witness a sheriff talking to Momma. The sheriff warns Momma that she better hide Uncle Willie, since there is suspicion all over town regarding a black man having an intimate relationship with a white woman. The Ku Klux Klan may be coming tonight, so she must hide him very well: “Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messes with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over later”. Now, this must be traumatizing for Maya and Bailey to watch; just because of their Uncle’s skin color and the “threat” he poses, he could have a good chance of being killed. This moment definitely led Maya to think of Stamps in a whole new different way.
Maya’s time growing up in the South ultimately caused a lot of self-hatred within her. The South is largely known for being conservative and racist, and Maya faced that reality significantly as a child. For example, in Chapter Five, she describes how a few white girls would come into the store to torment Momma and be rowdy and rude. Maya disliked the treatment of black people that she saw throughout Stamps. Stamps really wasn’t the right place for her at all. On the bright side, Maya and her brother did receive a good education from their uncle and Maya fell in love with reading when she read William Shakespeare for the first time. The siblings’ father, Bailey Johnson, re-enters their lives with a bang. He decides to take them to California. Maya and Bailey are so happy to move out of Stamps and astounded that Bailey is their dad since he is tall, sturdy, and has his life together. Instead of bringing them to California he leaves them with their mom in St. Louis. Even with their mother’s good looks, Maya still can’t believe how attractive she was compared to herself. “I was dumbstruck. 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’”. Maya’s time in St. Louis is drastically better than life in Stamps. St. Louis is more diverse and embracing of her. Maya and Bailey live with their grandparents before moving in with their mother. Maya has a little boost of self- confidence and definitely matures as a result of being one of the smartest students in her class. Most importantly, Maya’s relationship with books grows deeper; she reads a lot and gained knowledge. For a while, Maya and Bailey move in with their mom, Vivian and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. St. Louis starts to feel more like a deserted place. Everything starts turning around when she lives in their house. Maya’s relationship with Mr. Freeman worsens. One day, when her mom is gone, she wakes up to find Mr. Freeman holding her inappropriately. Maya doesn’t know how to react at all, having never felt this type of way before. She feels pleasure, but at the same is confused as to if this was right. Not realizing that she was being raped at all, she felt like it was all her fault because Mr. Freeman would not come into contact with her after that. Not long after, it would happen again: “For months he stopped speaking to me again. I was hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever. But then I forget about him, and even the memory of his holding me precious melted into the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood”. This moment is where the rising action officially begins.
This time with Mr. Freeman’s actions, Maya realizes that she’s being violated inappropriately: “ I hesitated for two reasons: he was holding me too tight to move, and I was sure that any minute my mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save me”. She continues, “Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of tape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot”. This incident in Maya’s early stages of her life is where she starts to understand herself and how she is placed in this world. Maya wants to tell someone the incident between her and Mr. Freeman, but she can’t because he threatens that if she tells anyone he’ll kill her brother. Maya, having great admiration for her brother, does not want to put him in any danger, but he still encourages her to tell the truth. After this incident, Mr. Freeman is arrested. Maya spoke against him, having a platform for focusing on she vocalizes her opinion. He is convicted, but is sentenced for just a year in jail. Surprisingly, he gets an early release, but is murdered by someone kicking him to death. Shortly after his death, Maya gets herself into a deep depression because she believes that her interactions with him lead to his death. She stops talking, sinking into a depressed state. She even stops thinking clearly, thinking that there is something wrong with her: “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended. I had to stop talking”. Unfortunately, she moves back to Stamps to restart her life again, and her brother is not in a good place emotionally as well.
Coping with her depression, Maya mopes around for a long period of time, until she meets her true companion, Ms. Bertha Flowers. Bertha Flowers is an old woman who isn’t quite like anyone else in town at all. She’s quite unique, like an educated renaissance woman, and she reads English novels. Bertha helps Maya a lot with her self-esteem and helps fuel her interest in reading and literature. Bertha really believes in Maya and wants the best for her, offering her much encouragement: “She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible”. Maya adds, “All I cared about was that she made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book.”
Pretty odd events happen to Maya when she is in her early teenage years. She becomes maid, only to help finish her schooling. She works for Mrs. Viola Cullinan, a rich white woman who doesn’t have the best personality. She keeps calling Maya “Mary” which causes the gig not to work out so well. Additionally, she and the family lost Bailey for a few weeks. Eventually, things start to bright up for Maya in her time in Stamps: she makes a friend at last. Her name is Louise. Maya and Louise share secrets together and truly held a favorable friendship.
Maya, now approaches graduation, only eighth grade graduation, but it’s a big deal. The ceremony had its ups and downs, but in the end. Maya ended it with her own self-note, you could shape her as a person once she gets older. Shee praises black poets and black people as a whole, how we changed the spectrum of ourselves from learning from one of other through literature. This shows Maya being more proud of her blackness completely, especially recognizing it at a young age.
Maya moves back to Los Angeles. She is extremely happy that she is in sunny California and back with her mom. She’s doesn’t want any incident like last time to get in her way of her being united with her mom. While living with Vivian, it was quite chaotic like last time. She got heavily involved with partying and violence, as well got married. His name is Daddy Clidell and he’s the first father figure Maya has ever looked up to. He treated her like not even her biological father bothered to. “Unexpectedly, I resembled him, and when he, Mother and I, walked down the street his friends often said, “Clidell that’s sure your daughter. Ain’t no way you can deny her.”
She moves to San Francisco and accepts a scholarship to a rich predominately white school called the California Labor School. She did experience racism once again, one of the only three black students at school. During her time there she was fully supported by Miss Kirwin, who taught her she shouldn’t be ashamed of the color of her skin in whatever environment she’s in. Shortly after, Maya is invited by her father, Daddy Bailey to spend some time with him in Southern California. She is introduced to his girlfriend, Dolores, who doesn’t like her at all. She goes on a trip with them to Mexico and it ends up in a whole fiasco. Once they got back the relationship between all three worsen. Dolores and Daddy Bailey began to argue, and Dolores ends up insulting Vivian, Maya’s mother. Maya reacted to slapping her and Dolores attacked her.
Maya is injured, she feel like she might die. After that traumatic night, she decides to run away and become homeless. This is where the climax happens. She is now living independently, sadly homeless for a long period of time. With that comes a great outcome, Maya starts to feel more confident and being exposed to the great diversity around her. “There was so much curiosity evident in their features that I knew they wouldn’t just go away before they knew who I was, so I opened the door, prepared to give them any story (even the truth) that would buy my peace.”
Maya ends up going back to living with her mother, Vivian and she does not question a thing. Since her life is back to being basic, she decides to look for a job. She is committed to becoming a train conductorette and nothing was going to stop her at all. Finally, she lives the dream of a lifetime becoming the first black woman to be a conductorette in all of San Francisco. “I would have the job. I would be a conductorette and sling a full money changer from my belt. I would.” She goes back to school, but still faces the same prejudice and sexism from her classmates forcing her to skip classes and having no motivation to learn.
During this time in Maya’s life, she’s in her late teens discovering her sexuality. She feels as if she’s lesbian due to the late puberty growth of her body. She couldn’t imagine being a lesbian, so solving that she decides to finds a boyfriend. She makes the plan to have sexual intercourse with a guy from her neighborhood and it was a success. Unfortunately, for her young self she finds out she is pregnant. Maya hides the pregnancy for months, until the end of the year when she graduates high school. She left with only a note to her parents who were okay with the whole thing. Maya gives birth to a baby boy now is involved in the next chapter of her life, adulthood. At the end, she cuddles with her child in a gentle quiet manner falling asleep together.
The theme behind I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Identity. Maya undergoes a lot of change from start to finish, ranging from good to bad to right back to good. Maya struggles with her appearance (Black identity and how it affects her living in than Modern America) and her rape as a child (how it stuck with her and how she could never get over it, even when it comes to her interest in sex/sexuality). Maya is like any other human being, even if she went through traumatic events in such a short period of time, she didn’t know who she was at one point. What is the meaning of Maya Angelou? What’s her purpose it confused her to question herself on the daily.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has caused great impact to African-American Literature and how it relentlessly shows the struggle of black women in marginalized community. The book presents like any human goes through, women of color go through too. Caged Bird greatly influenced Maya’s colleagues such as, James Baldwin and Oprah Winfrey. Even influencing pop culture as well, Alicia Keys released a song called “Caged Bird” off her 2001 album Songs in A Minor. Keys stayed true to the essence of Angelou’s theme. I would gratefully recommend this book to anyone my own age wanting to learn more the issues of race, identity, and trauma.
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