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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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    Have you ever considered how a young, insecure, black girl growing up in the South during the 1930s dealt with physical and verbal discrimination directed toward her African American race? This may not seem like a big deal at first, but consider that this was a time before the African American Civil Rights Movement; a time during which racism and segregation were a fact of life. It was a daily struggle for blacks to live in a society that clearly and openly did not accept them as equal people. They were frequently ridiculed and disrespected just because of the color of their skin.

    Since they were evidently treated differently, many despised the fact that they were black. As a result of their helpless circumstances, it was understandable that many blacks during that time lacked confidence and self-acceptance. Maya Angelou was an African American girl who grew up during this challenging time. During her childhood, she witnessed and experienced racial prejudice first hand. She had difficultly understanding and accepting the consequences that accompanied belonging to this race during this era.

    Although she had several bad experiences as a child, she did not allow them to take over the rest of her life. Overcoming prejudice demands one to go through a long, ruthless journey, particularly when the prejudice is directed towards oneself. This is unmistakably displayed in Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At the beginning of the novel Maya, as a young child, dislikes her ethnicity. As the novel progresses and she matures into a teenager, she gains a better understanding of her race and finds some comfort in it as well.

    Towards the end of the novel, when Maya is a young adult, she shows complete acceptance and outright pride in her heritage. Therefore, as the novel progresses, Maya gradually develops her acceptance in her African American race. As a young girl, Maya Angelou’s experiences cause her to believe that being black is an undesirable trait. In the beginning chapters of the novel, Maya remembered hearing “…the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate” (Angelou 40).

    In this remark, it is obvious that in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, racism affected all blacks even down to what they ate. Simple offensive comments like this made Maya feel as though she was a whole separate breed than Whites. As said in Novels for Students, “During these years, she struggled against the odds of being black at a time when prejudice, especially in the South, was at its height” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Novels for Students). This gives support that blacks who resided in the South during the 1930s sometimes lived a brutal and harsh life.

    In addition, throughout the novel, Maya had to grow up more quickly than the children around her. Some of Maya’s childhood experiences, such as her mother’s boyfriend raping her, have added to the fact that she feels even more displaced and inferior to Whites. During her youth, she witnessed many disturbing things that went along with being black such as physical and verbal discrimination. The “Harshness of Black Southern life” (Angelou 7) is such an example. This includes the struggle of picking cotton on a daily routine, but not earning nearly enough money to support one’s family.

    Maya despised the fact that she is black and would probably be sentenced to this kind of labor in her near future. Maya’s early experience with a racist dentist also causes her to be resentful towards her ethnicity. A local white dentist refused to treat her toothache and told her that “…my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s” (Angelou 160). Immediately after hearing this, Maya and Momma (Maya’s grandmother) were taken back by this insulting remark and were absolutely speechless. The dentist did not even look Maya in the face when he said this which made her feel as though her race was inferior.

    This is a clear example of how her childhood experience scarred her and added her to resentment of her race. Throughout her youth, Maya also felt as if she was hideous and often compared her unattractive physical appearances to those of “sweet, little, white girls” (Angelou 1). Maya Angelou recounts her feelings about being an “ugly” black girl: 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, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? …

    Because 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, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil (Angelou 2). In just the first few pages of the novel, Maya clearly is upset with the fact she is not an “ideal” young women. She believed that an ideal woman was a white girl with long, blonde hair. Maya expresses her unhappiness with her race when she said that she wished she could look like a white girl having their hair instead of her own. In addition, Critic Pierre A.

    Walker comments on how “in the opening pages of the book, Maya suffered from a strong case of racial self-hatred, fantasizing that she was ‘really white’, with ‘light-blue eyes’ and ‘long blond’ hair” (Walker). These two quotations simultaneously reveal Maya’s jealousy of white girls and therefore her discontent with herself. She feels as though being black prevents her from fitting in with the rest of society. Her desire to be white along with her horrific personal childhood experiences demonstrate how Maya, at several points in the novel, is not in any way happy or proud with being black.

    As the novel progresses and Maya grows older, she experienced many mixed feelings about her race. During her eighth grade graduation she exhibits two very different opinions about her race. After she hears Mr. Edward Donleavy’s speech, stating that blacks could not succeed in life as well as whites, she says, “It was awful to be a Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense” (Angelou 153). This shows her unhappiness with being a young black female.

    This is because Maya feels as though there is nothing she can do to defend the people of her own race. Towards the end of the graduation, she had a change of heart and began to feel a sense of pride after the Negro national anthem is sung. “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 156) Maya recounts. This quotation demonstrates two different kinds of emotions and, thus, reveals her uncertainty about her feelings toward her race.

    At this point in the novel, Maya is progressing from feelings of regret to feelings of pride in her race. This shows the beginning of her transformation of becoming a proud supporter of her African American heritage. Another instance when Maya gains respect for her race is when her grandmother, Momma, stands up to the “powhitetrash” girls who are mocking and disrespecting Maya. On this occasion, Momma does not fall down to the white girl’s level of mockery; she shows her dignity in her race by simply standing there and respecting them by not saying anything rude to them in return.

    Her grandmother’s actions teach her that her ethnicity can be more mature in some aspects and can show resistance in a respectable and tactful way as well. Throughout the novel, Maya also learns that she should support and stand up for herself, despite her skin color. Critic Edward E. Eller comments, “As she matures, she sheds the notion of becoming white and comes to be proud of her race and her heritage” (Eller). Eller’s comment clearly illustrates how Maya is maturing and beginning to not only accept her African American heritage, but to become proud of it too.

    As the novel progresses, Maya begins to recognize that being black is not as undesirable or looked down upon as she had originally thought. Maya’s teenage experiences result in her being proud to be an African American. She first shows her pride in her race when Joe Louis, a black man, wins the championship boxing match, which is ironically against a white man. Maya announces, “Joe Louis had proven that we were the strongest people in the world” (Angelou 115). This quote illustrates how Maya realizes that whites do not always have to be superior to blacks as previously thought.

    Knowing that someone of her same ethnicity is the best boxer in the world makes her feel proud to be part of the African American race. Her accomplishment of getting hired as the first African American streetcar conductorette also adds to her pride. She recounts “. . . then on a blissful day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars” (Angelou 229). This achievement took a lot of desire and hope, two things that she lacked in the beginning of the novel. Through her experiences as a teen, she also gains enough self-respect to stand up for herself when she is not being taken seriously by Mrs.

    Cullinan, the woman that Maya works for. Mrs. Cullinan is often ignorant towards Maya because she is black and, therefore, continually calls her by the wrong name. Maya shows her strength by actively protesting and not giving into the humiliation. Earlier in the novel, Maya is introduced to a woman named Mrs. Flowers. By reading books and discussing them with her, Mrs. Flowers taught Maya the “power of words” and how to stand up for herself. Maya recalls, “It would be safe to say that she [Mrs. Flowers] made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself” (Angelou 79).

    She uses this lesson later in her life when standing up for herself when she was being disrespected by Mrs. Cullinan. By standing up for herself as a proud individual, Maya shows her strength and pride in her race. She makes it clear that she deserves the same amount of respect regardless of her skin color. Critic Sidonie Ann Smith says, “Maya Angelou’s autobiography comes to a sense of an ending: the black American girl child has succeeded in freeing herself from the natural and social bars of imprisoning her in the cage of her own diminished self-image by assuming control of her life and fully accepting her black womanhood” (Smith).

    Smith reveals that Maya truly is proud to be a strong black woman because she has endured many violent situations that not many could mentally handle. Even though these problems have the potential to face all children of every race, for black females in the 1930s, the troubles only intensify an already difficult situation. By Maya overcoming her past battles, she has demonstrated to many her pride in her race. Maya’s acceptance of her African American heritage did not happen overnight.

    Truth be told, it took many childhood experiences to teach her to be proud and confident about her race. As a black girl growing up in a racist society, Maya Angelou was not always proud about her race. She often had a hard time accepting the fact that she was black and therefore considered herself as inferior to whites. She had experienced many diverse feelings concerning her race, but in the end, she came to gain pride in and appreciate her African American heritage. Maya’s progression of feelings showed how she grew mentally as an individual.

    Throughout the novel, it is evident that she used her experiences to progress from a state of self-hatred, to a state of acceptance, and then finally to a state of pride with ample self-confidence. This goes to show that one can learn an immense amount of knowledge from their own experiences, despite whether the feelings are good or bad. Like Maya, it is essential for one to use their own life’s experiences to develop a better understanding of themselves. Almost anyone can relate to Angelou’s autobiography in the sense that as one matures, one begins to gain pride in oneself and eventually comes to accept their own individuality.

    As one grows up, it is natural to be self-conscience and insecure about themselves. But in Maya’s circumstance, it was more challenging and more difficult for her to accept who she was because of the everyday battles she was faced with because of her African American race. It is extremely difficult to foresee how an ordinary experience, such as a boxing match or a graduation, might lead to in terms of one’s future understanding and confidence in their self. Without a doubt, every day presents a brand new opportunity to better appreciate and gain pride in oneself.

    Works Cited

    Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1969. Print. Eller, Edward E. in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Rpt. in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 133-152. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 133-152. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. Smith, Sidonie Ann. “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou’s Quest after Self-Acceptance.” Auburn University Southern Humanities Review 7:4 Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1998. Print. Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’” College Literature 22.n3 Oct. 1995: 91. Rpt. in Expanded Academic ASAP. Literature Resource Center. Gale. eiNetwork. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. Web.

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