Valerie Rhoads Mary Ann Hayes Women in Literature 11 December 2008 My topic: Displacement Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a genre of an autobiography. This autobiography is written with the plot in mind, having a beginning, middle, and an ending that all connect together. The title is taken from the final stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”. The Caged Bird represents Maya Angelou as a bird struggling to escape its cage; this is used as a metaphor because she considers her “black self” to be the cage that entraps her…
Angelou’s story is written in the first person point of view. My paper will show how displacement affected her life and despite her displacement she becomes a success. Angelou’s exposition is an important piece because she wants the reader to know that Maya is aware of her displacement right from the beginning of the story. She’s getting the reader prepared for her childhood that is unfortunately full of insults. Maya stands in front of her church congregation on Easter morning and could not finish the lines from the poem she was to recite. She repeats “What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay”. Her dress made of a faded purple taffeta that was cut down from white women’s holds a symbolic meaning in the story. At long last the minister’s wife offers her the forgotten lines of her poem. In the meantime, the background of the church is filled with silly laughter over her forgetfulness. Maya hurriedly holds up her two fingers which told her teacher that she had to go to the bathroom. As she gets half way down the aisle she tripped over a foot that stuck out from the children’s pew, as she stumbled “a green persimmon gets caught between her legs and was squeezed”.
She’s unable to control the pressure of her physical response and as she’s running out of the church she’s peeing, crying, and laughing all at the same time. Her laughter is partly due for knowing that she won’t die from the whipping she will receive when she gets home but this is another way of foreshadowing Angelou’s eventual success in life. The scene conveys the humiliation, frustration, and displacement that she’s feeling. Angelou doesn’t place a specific time to the opening scene which is foreshadowing that she will feel these same emotions over and over again throughout her life.
When Maya repeats, “What you looking at me for”? I didn’t come to stay. She’s emphasizing her displacement, and it’s as if she’s asking is something wrong with me? She’s knows she was abandoned as a child and doesn’t belong with her Grandmother. As a child she struggled with a lot of self hatred that was derived from her appearance. She considered herself an oversized Negro girl, with nappy hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil. She referred to her skin as “dirty like mud” also as “shit colored”.
Earlier, as she watched her Grandmother sew the ruffle on her dress she dreamed that her Easter dress would transform her into a white girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes that she equated with beauty. Maya wanted to be that sweet little girl that stood for everything right in the world, but in reality she knew she was not right. She knew she had the wrong dress, wrong legs, wrong hair, and wrong color. Maya felt like she was living in a “black ugly dream” and she could only escape from it temporarily when she dreamed of living in a white world. Angelou ends the opening scene with an important quote. If growing up is painful for the Southern black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat”. It is an unnecessary insult. She’s comparing her displacement with the experiences of growing up in the South where she’s faced with a lot of racism, and this must feel like a razor to one’s throat. At the age of three Maya’s parents divorced and shipped her and her brother Bailey by train to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her Grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, and Uncle Willie. The plot of the story begins here.
At this tender age of three she was first abandoned by her parents when they could no longer love and support her. Then again, by the Porter on the train who only rode half way with them on their trip, he then taped a written note onto their jackets and left them to find their final destination on their own. The note was not addressed to Mrs. Henderson specifically just “To Whom It May Concern”. Being abandoned so early in life left her with feelings of never really belonging to any one place. At the age of eight Maya is displaced again when she and her brother are taken to St. Louis, Missouri to visit their mother, Vivian Baxter.
She never did adjust to the hustle and bustle of the big city, especially coming from a small rural town in the South. Maya started having nightmares and she got accustomed to sleeping in bed with Vivian and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Eventually, he started molesting this poor innocent child. He threatened to kill her brother Bailey if she would ever tell anyone about it. Maya was very confused and terrified by this situation. Since she hadn’t made any friends in her new location she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maya’s only refugee at this time was to go to the library and lose herself in the fascinating adventures of books.
She fell in love with reading very early in life, and this was her way of escaping with what she was dealing with. One night, Vivian stays out all night and Mr. Freeman sends Maya to the store to buy milk, when she returns from the errand he rapes her. After the whole terrible event is over her brother begs her to tell him who did this to her. When she does confess Mr. Freeman is found dead a few days later, probably by Maya’s uncles. Maya feels that if she where to speak again someone would get hurt and as a child she thought her voice had killed him. She decided she wouldn’t speak again.
Vivian’s family never did accept the fact that she remained speechless because they thought she had some time to recover. So Maya and Bailey are sent back to Stamps to live with their Grandmother once again. Disruptive as it is this proves to be the middle of the plot. Sending Maya back to Stamps can be viewed as healing time for her, something she needed badly. She’s welcomed back in Stamps by her Grandmother and the people in the community. Maya remained mute for the next five years. During her stay her Grandmother introduces her to her friend Mrs. Bertha Flowers.
As Maya puts it “The lady who threw [her her] first life line”. Maya viewed Mrs. Flowers as a woman in the English novels, not as someone who existed in the real world. She explains how Mrs. Flowers magnificently rules both her words and her body. Her bodily control seems almost supernatural to Maya “She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather”. I think she was impressed by the way she spoke so refined. Maya wanted to be like her because she shared the same love of literature. She makes Maya feel proud of her African American heritage, to Maya Mrs.
Flowers seemed more beautiful and “just as refined as “whitefolks” in movies and books”. She was able to break Maya of her silence by having her recite the words of Charles Dickenson, “In the Tale of Two Cities”. Maya is able to regain her strength from reading literature. At the age of thirteen, after she graduates with honors from the eighth grade, Maya is displaced again when she moves back to California with her mother. This time Maya is older and starting to mature a little bit, but she has a new cast of family members to deal with since Vivian has a new husband, Daddy Clidell.
He was quite a colorful character on his own who wore tailored made suits in bright colors and feathers in his hat. He taught Maya how to play cards, like black jack, poker, tonk, and high and low and introduced her to a whole group of characters in the Black underground. They had names like Stonewall Jimmy, Just Black, Cool Clyde, Tight Coat, they were probably some of the most successful con men of their time. They took turns showing Maya some of their tricks. They chose their victims who they called (marks) from wealthy bigoted whites and in every case how they used their victims prejudice against them.
This was one of the reasons why Angelou’s book appeared on the challenged book list. The Alabama State Textbook Committee accused I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings of encouraging “bitterness and hatred toward white people. ” Maya moves on to new adventures when Daddy Bailey invites her to spend the summer with him in southern California. One evening, he announced they would drive to Mexico the next day to buy food for the weekend. He thought it would give Maya a chance to practice her Spanish. Her trip turned into a nightmare, after her father got drunk, and Maya was left to drive the car back.
Being sixteen and had never driven before, this proved to be another disruptive section of the middle of the plot. Maya and Daddy Bailey survived with a slight car accident, but when they returned home she faces another disruptive encounter with Daddy Bailey’s girlfriend. She receives a laceration on her arm, and decides it’s time to leave. At this point Maya decides to displace herself. She ends up living for one month in a junkyard community with a group of homeless teenagers. Being geographically displaced as a child was just one of struggles Maya aced, she faced so much more with racism and segregation, and the violent act of rape as she was coming of age. It’s amazing since her chances of becoming successful from just being a Southern black female alone were very limited, but for her to overcome so much more and still come out successful is phenomenal! In my opinion Maya really had the best of both worlds. As a child she was raised by a very strong, very strict Grandmother who taught her some very valuable up standing principles in life. Her mother, Vivian being just the opposite, still taught her valuable lessons from the street.