Reading is an ongoing theme through Maya’s childhood and books even become her lifeline after Mr. Freeman rapes her. They give her an escape from her immediate world as well as the opportunity to find poetry. It is not until Mrs. Bertha Flowers reads aloud to her that she recognizes beauty in the sound of the words and she is shown the aesthetic pleasure available. This offsets the abuse she has suffered and gives her the opportunity to engage with the world once more. It could be argued that, in turn, Angelou’s volumes of autobiographies also offer a form of inspiration that challenges the dominant ideology of racism. Through her written words, she invites one to question the de-humanizing effects of racism and encourages a move from passivity to activism.
As Angelou recounts memories of her childhood in Stamps, she manages to maintain a double-edged view of the South. Although she is careful to let the readers know of humorous occurrences, she balances this throughout with reminders of how entrenched racism de-humanizes and terrifies those who are regarded as being at the bottom of the hierarchy. She describes the complete segregation of the town and how African-Americans have been taught to dread the ‘whitefolks’ and is trained by Momma to never be insolent (because of the fear of retribution). I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings stands as a testament to the bravery of those who have been oppressed but not silenced by this deeply racist society. As the eponymous caged bird, that is taught the necessity of living a restricted life through fear, Angelou’s work shows a refusal to be silenced.
Sense of Belonging
In this memoir, Angelou refers vividly to instances when she feels as though she has been on the outside looking in and it is not until she lives in San Francisco and later lives as a homeless person that she finds acceptance. Before these times, it is as though she is an exile in her family and neighborhood. In the Prologue, she relates to the truth in the poem, that she has not come to stay and experiences this same emotion in St Louis when she first returns to Mother. In San Francisco, she thrives in the newly burgeoning African-American community and as one of many underage homeless persons in the disused car lot she finds the acceptance of her peers that she has been craving. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Top Ten Quotes
1. Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? p. 4 Maya’s self-loathing is revealed here as she describes her idea of beauty. It is as though she has internalized the racist views that see Aryan-white characteristics as the ideal. 2. It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate. p. 49 This reference describes the slow yet powerful impact of the Depression on the African-American communities in the South in the 1930s. 3. I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people? p. 84 Maya experiences guilt at this juncture for the death of Mr Freeman. She connects her lie in court (when she said he did not touch her before the rape) with his murder and decides at this point to stop speaking. She believes her words are somehow to blame and decides shortly after to stop talking. 4. Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name’. It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks. p. 105 This quotation comes when Maya works for a white woman (Mrs Viola Cullinan), who decides to call her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Margaret’. 5. The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose. Any break from routine may herald for them unbearable news. For this reason, Southern Blacks until the present generation could be counted among America’s arch conservatives. p. 110
Here, Maya captures the anxiety of Momma as she waits for Bailey to come home. He is later than expected and her fear for his safety is explained in relation to the dreaded possibility that he may have been lynched. 6. All the Negroes had to do generally, and those at the revival especially, was bear up under this life of toils and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye. p. 125 In this reference, Maya uses a strong measure of irony to challenge the tenet that the meek shall inherit the earth. By questioning this, she undermines both racism and passivity to racism. 7. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful. p. 131
This comes when Maya, her family and neighbors (from near and far) crowd into the Store to listen to the radio broadcast of Joe Louis boxing. The quotation captures the political and social significance of why he must not be beaten. 8. The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gaugins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises. p. 174 At the much anticipated graduation, Maya is disappointed with the white visiting speaker (Donleavy) for exposing the schoolchildren to the limits of their opportunities. This is, of course, also a critique of the wider society that has encouraged the segregation of school children and the separate but not equal treatment of African-Americans. 9. The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country’s table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast. p. 218
In this reference, Maya explains the divisive effect of racism and how this influences responses to crime and justice. As she points out, ‘the needs of a society determine its ethics’ and this redefines who the criminals actually are. 10. The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. p. 260 This somewhat poetic description of how Maya struggles to gain work on the street-cars, despite the company’s racist employment policy, is undercut in the next few sentences. After looking into the hard eyes of a white
‘conducterette’ on the way home, she sees ‘the whole charade’ as having everything to do with her ‘being black and the receptionist being white’.
Chapter Twenty Four is concerned with Maya’s toothache and we are told there is not enough enamel left on the offending two teeth for Momma to tie string around and yank them out. There are no African-American dentists or doctors in Stamps – the nearest one is 25 miles away – so Momma says she will take her to (white) Dr. Lincoln in town as he owes her a favor. Analysis
In Chapter Twenty Four, the impact of segregation and racist ideology in Stamps is referred to in relation to what should be a simple trip to the dentist. Dr Lincoln’s espoused policy (that he will not put his hand in a ‘nigger’s’ mouth) epitomizes the irrational yet deeply-seated racism of their environment. His hypocrisy is all the more difficult to comprehend when we are told that his business had been saved by the loan he took from Momma.
The injustices of the town are also thought to be behind the reason for Momma taking Bailey and Maya to California. It is never explained in these terms, but it tallies with the time period, which comes shortly after Bailey witnesses the hatred of the whites towards African-Americans once more.