I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou 1970Introduction
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first—and many say the best—of five autobiographical volumes the gifted African-American author Maya Angelou wrote. It is a remarkably vivid retelling of the turbulent events of her childhood, during which she shuttled back and forth between dramatically different environments in rural Stamps, Arkansas, slightly raunchy St. Louis, Missouri, and glitzy San Francisco, California. It is also the annals of her relationships with a rich and diverse cast of characters, chief among them her determined, strict, and wise grandmother, Annie Henderson, her crippled and bitter uncle, Willie Johnson, her bright and imaginative brother, Bailey Johnson, Jr., her playboy father, Bailey Johnson, and her beautiful, brilliant, and worldly mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. A host of other unforgettable characters fill out the cast for this earnest, sometimes sardonic retelling of the drama of Maya Angelou's growing-up years. During these years, she struggled against the odds of being black at a time when prejudice, especially in the South, was at its height. But most of all her story is the story of discovering who she is—of working her way through a multifaceted identity crisis. The source of the title of the book is a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled "Sympathy." "I know why the caged bird sings," writes the poet. "When he beats his bars and he would be free. It is a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings. I know why the caged bird sings!"
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Bailey, a doorkeeper and naval dietician, and Vivian, a nurse and real estate agent, Johnson. When Angelou was three and her brother, Bailey, was four, her parents divorced and shipped the two young children to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in the stark, dusty, black section of Stamps, Arkansas. Annie had status in the black community; she owned and ran a successful general store that supplied the black community with food and sundries. She also owned an extra house that she rented to a family of poor white people who occasionally came to the store to taunt her and her family.
During the Depression, Mrs. Johnson (also known as Sister Johnson) was able to lend money to both blacks and whites in need of cash. Later, she was able to use this as a kind of clout when she confronted offensive former borrowers. Stolid, confident, strong and wise, she was the children's first role model—a strict one who taught them cleanliness, godliness, and respect for others. Their lives revolved around the store and its customers and the church, which Angelou viewed with a certain amount of skepticism.
A bright child, as was her brother, she learned quickly and did well in the black school she attended. An elegant neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, took Angelou under her wing and taught her to love books. The children adjusted well to life in Stamps, in spite of the prejudice they experienced from and toward whites. Their lives were rich with people, including grumpy Uncle Willie, their crippled uncle who hung out in the store most of the time, unable to do any meaningful work. They were part of a close, caring community that extended to the bridge that transversed the gap that sharply divided the black and white sections of town.
Suddenly one day, the children's father arrived in a car to swoop them up and take them to live with their mother in St. Louis. Through good looks, wits, and guts, their mother was able to provide them with a better standard of living. But disaster struck when their mother's live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, seduced and violently raped Angelou. After a brief court trial, Freeman was sentenced to jail. He never made it: their mother's brothers beat him to death behind a slaughter house. Hospitalized for her injuries and traumatized, Angelou returned home a changed child. She would not talk or smile. To others, she was thoroughly disagreeable. Finally, her mother couldn't stand this behavior any longer. She returned the children to their grandmother in Stamps, where Angelou gradually came out of her shell and resumed the familiar patterns of her pre-St. Louis life.
After graduating from grade school, she and her brother returned to live with their mother, who had moved to San Francisco. With her mother's support, Angelou became a confident teenager who managed to force her way into a job as a streetcar conductor at the age of fifteen. She was the first black to achieve this status. Confused about her sexuality, she decided to prove she was a normal woman by demanding and having sex with a young neighbor. The one-time liaison led to the birth of Angelou's son, Guy Johnson.
As she continued her journey toward adulthood and ultimate multiple successes, she experienced life at its best and at its worst. At one point, she brushed against prostitution and drugs. Her several marriages ended in divorce, in part because she had so many agendas for her life. She kept her first husband's name as her surname. After completing high school in San Francisco and attending an art school there, she studied music and dance, tutored in the latter art with dancers Martha Graham, Pearl Primus and Ann Halprin. She also studied drama with Frank Silvera and Gene Frankel. She became a dancer, playwright, actress, director, singer, poet, composer and politician. She spent four years in Ghana pursuing a knowledge of her heritage—and discovered that essentially she was an American. Tapped by Martin Luther King, Jr., she served as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959 and 1960, and she published the first of her series of autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. She has been writer in residence and professor in numerous universities around the world, won numerous awards for both acting and writing, received honorary degrees from leading universities, and served on the boards of several prestigious arts and civic organizations. She was honored at President Clinton's first inauguration in 1993, where she recited one of her celebrated poems.
The first of five autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings focuses on the recollections and adult understanding of Maya Angelou's growing up female and black in the America of the 1930s and 1940s. The author begins this volume with a description of her young self standing in front of the church to deliver a short poem on Easter. Although she describes herself as very dark and ugly with "steel wool" for hair, here she imagines that someday her true self will emerge. She'll be blonde, blue-eyed, and white.
The first chapter proper, however, shows us three-year-old Marguerite (Maya) and her four-year-old brother, Bailey, arriving by train to live with their father's mother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. The children's parents have ended their marriage and sent the young children off by train with notes instructing "To Whom It May Concern" of their names, origin, and destination. Once in Stamps, the children's lives revolve around the church, the school, and helping "Momma" and their lame Uncle Willie with the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, referred to by all in the community as "The Store." Their grandmother has built the business up from a simple lunch wagon for field workers.
Since the Store acts as a focus of the community, Marguerite and Bailey become acquainted with the daily lives of everyone in the black section of town. They wait on the field hands before they load up in wagons reminiscent of the plantations and serve them in the evenings when they return worn and beaten from the fields. They know Mr. McElroy as an independent black man. They watch the Reverend H. Thomas get the best of the Sunday chicken. And they survive the Depression and keep the Store going by exchanging commodities given out by the government for items from the shelves. The children do their lessons under Uncle Willie's stern hand and fall in love with books, especially Shakespeare, around the fire in the back of the store at night.
Part II—St. Louis
Quite suddenly, though, their father shows up in Stamps with no prior contact but Christmas presents the year before. Their father drives Marguerite and Bailey to their mother and her family in St. Louis. Here, Grandmother Baxter presides as a Precinct Captain, and their loud, tough uncles have city jobs. Their mother, Vivian Baxter, whom Bailey names "Mother Dear," has been trained as a pediatric nurse but lives with Mr. Freeman and supplements her income by dealing cards. Marguerite and Bailey adjust quickly to city life and do well in school.
One morning when Mother hasn't come home yet and Bailey is out, Mr. Freeman approaches Marguerite sexually. She had sat on his lap and hugged him before, mistaking his attentions as ordinary and "fatherly." Today, however, he turns up the volume on the radio to drown out her cries and brutally rapes the eight-year-old girl. When he is finished, he warns her that if she tells, he'll kill Bailey.
We were just playing before. He released me enough to snatch down my bloomers, and then he dragged me closer to him. Turning the radio up loud, too loud, he said, 'if you scream, I'm gonna kill you. And if you tell, I'm gonna kill Bailey.' I could tell he meant what he said. I couldn't understand why he wanted to kill my brother. Neither of us had done anything to him. And then.
Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape 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.
Maya's mother discovers the injury, Mr. Freeman's crime is discovered, and he is put on trial. When his lawyer gets him freed on a technicality, his body is later found. Presumably, the uncles have kicked him to death. At this point Marguerite feels responsible for his death and stops talking. Without explanation, the children soon find themselves on a train going back to Stamps. Their lives resume as before they left, with the community accepting them completely.
Part III—Return to Stamps
Back in the rural South, Marguerite witnesses her grandmother's triumph when some young white girls try to shame her. Joe Louis keeps the World's Heavyweight Championship title while they listen on the store's radio. After years of silence, Marguerite is befriended by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a "gentle-woman" who gently persuades her to begin talking again by loaning her books to be read aloud and together. At a picnic Marguerite sneaks off to read and then makes her first friend of her own age. She graduates with honors from grammar school in 1940. She works for a short while as domestic help.
Momma abruptly decides to take the children to their parents, who now live in California, when Bailey comes to the Store in shock. He has been made to handle a dead black man's body and witness the brutality of whites to blacks. Bailey cannot understand the hatred, and his grandmother fears for his safety.
World War II has just started, and San Francisco booms with wartime activities. The children's mother is now married to "Daddy Clidell," the first father Marguerite knows. She attends a nearly all-white school and does well but is bored except for social studies and night classes she takes at the California Labor School. Marguerite has many glamorous daydreams when her father invites her "to vacation" with him in southern California. Once there, however, she becomes quickly disillusioned with her father's girlfriend, the trailer park, and her father.
On a day trip to Mexico with her father, she gets a glimpse of the exotic life she had imagined. But her father gets too drunk, and Marguerite drives them all the way to the border, nearly without mishap. Back at the trailer, the girlfriend Dolores cuts Marguerite during a fight. Her father takes Marguerite to friends, but she leaves and finds herself part of a racially mixed community of young people living on their own in a junkyard. After a month, she calls her mother and returns to San Francisco.
In San Francisco she finds her brother and mother constantly at odds until Bailey finally moves out, eventually joining the Merchant Marines. Dissatisfied and restless, Marguerite decides to get a job. She ends up battling bureaucracy to become the first black conductor on the street cars. Still young, but more mature than her peers, Marguerite becomes confused by her newly awakening sexual feelings and seduces a young man.
Three weeks later she realizes she's pregnant, but on Bailey's advice keeps the pregnancy a secret so that she can finish high school. Once she has graduated, two days after V-Day, she leaves a note on Daddy Clidell's bed informing her parents of her pregnancy. Soon after, her son is born, and her mother takes care of him. Maya loves her son but is afraid to touch him because she's always been "awkward." Finally, however, her mother puts the three-week-old baby to sleep with Marguerite. At first Marguerite protests, then struggles to stay awake so she won't crush the baby. Later on, though, her mother wakes her to demonstrate how she has protected her son even in her sleep.
Vivian Baxter Bailey
Vivian Baxter Bailey (Maya's Mother) is a beautiful, sexy, vibrant, smart woman with more than a little common sense. She loves her children—and she listens to them uncritically (with the exception of her final blow-up with Bailey, Jr.). Energetic, she pursues several careers. She rents out rooms in her large home in San Francisco and manages casinos. She is also a one-time nurse. She gradually weans Maya from the restricted environment of Stamps and brings her into the freer environment of a city without lynchings. She's not afraid to confront people who have displeased her. For example, when she learns that Mr. Freeman has raped Maya, he's out the door immediately. She carries a gun and uses it strategically when she is threatened by a traitorous business partner. A strong and appealing individual, she is unforgettable.
Grandmother Baxter, Maya's maternal grandmother, is an octoroon—a person with one-eighth African-American blood—which meant that her skin was white. She plays a very minor role in Maya's life, but she's interesting because she has infiltrated St. Louis politics to the point where she has considerable influence.
Daddy Clidell, Mother's second husband, is "the first father I would know." A successful businessman, he adds stability to Maya's life.
See Bailey Johnson, Sr.
Mrs. Flowers is an elegant black lady who lives in Stamps. She makes Maya proud to be an African American. Knowing that Maya is an outstanding student, she provides her with the best of literature and introduces her to formal customs such as afternoon tea.
Mr. Freeman is Maya's mother's live-in boyfriend. One day, while Maya's mother is away from home, he brutally rapes Maya. He goes on trial for the crime but is let off on a legal technicality. He is soon after found beaten to death, presumably by Maya's uncles. Maya feels responsible for his death and is psychologically unable to speak for years.
Maya's grandmother (also known as Momma [by Maya], Mrs. Henderson, and Sister) is a strong, independent, righteous woman. Her family, her store, and her church are the focal points of her life. She rules Maya and Bailey with an iron hand and a velvet glove, teaching them cleanliness, godliness, respect, and courtesy. Successful and prosperous, she is never stingy. During the Depression, she lends money to blacks and whites alike. Later she takes her chances by taking a dangerously ill Maya to a white dentist. When he refuses to treat a Negro, she tells him to get out of town that very day. He is rightfully intimidated by her. She is a strong, determined, and unafraid woman. Nevertheless, she knows the boundaries of the prejudiced society in which the black people of Stamps dwell. The threat of a lynching is never far away. Says Maya of her grandmother, "I don't think she ever knew that a deep-brooding love hung over everything she touched."
See Annie Henderson
Bailey Johnson, Jr.
Maya's brother, Bailey, is her best friend. A bright and imaginative companion, he shares her love of books and of drama. Bailey is somewhat more likely than Maya to get into trouble (but nothing major), especially when he reaches his adolescent years. He has a brief sexual affair with a rather loose girl. He loves St. Louis and his mother and he resents it when he has to return to Stamps because of Maya's withdrawal after the rape. When he is sixteen, he moves out of his mother's San Francisco house after he and his mother have a fight. Basically, they can't live with each other and they can't live without each other, Maya explains. Eventually, Bailey joins the Merchant Marines.
Bailey Johnson, Sr.
Maya's unpredictable father, Bailey Johnson, Sr., cares about his children but only in a casual way. Well spoken and impeccably dressed, he earns his living as a doorman in a hotel. Before that, he was a dietician in the U.S. Navy. But at heart he's a boastful, self-important, hard-drinking playboy who sleeps around and deceives women about his marital intentions.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a TV movie in 1979 starring Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosely, Paul Benjamin, and Constance Good, directed by Fielder Cook. It is available from Knowledge Unlimited, Inc.
See Maya Johnson
Maya Johnson (also known as Marguerite Johnson and Ritie) is a brilliant, sensitive young black woman with keen insight into her environment and the people in it. Her observations and her expressed feelings are so real that the reader begins to absorb her vivid if tragic universe. Early on in the book, she describes herself as "a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil." Her childhood dream is to wake up some day with light-blue eyes and long, straight, blond hair.
Life in Stamps is timeless but not tedious. The days and seasons follow one another in orderly sequence as Maya helps in the store, attends school, play-acts with her brother Bailey, Jr., listens to grown-up talk as neighbors gather in the store, and attends church services and church picnics (the former usually with a sense of skepticism). Maya's mentor, the elegant Mrs. Flowers, introduces her to the world of literature and afternoon tea.
Mischief, as well as skepticism, is very much part of Maya's nature. When she takes a job as a maid in a white person's house, her employer's friends urge them to call her Mary, not Marguerite, deeming the latter too long a name for a little black girl. She manages to extricate herself from the unpleasant situation by plotting with Bailey to break her employer's favorite piece of bric-a-brac. Solitary and within herself, teased by schoolmates, Maya has few friends her own age, although she finally links up with another school pariah, Louise Kendricks.
The sudden departure from Stamps to St. Louis is traumatic at first. But when Maya meets her beautiful, lively, smart mother, she likes her immediately. It is a different world in St. Louis—one where her mother prospers by pursuing several careers as a real estate agent, an entertainer, and a casino hostess. All would have been fine if Mr. Freeman, her mother's boyfriend, had not raped Maya. But after the hospitalization, the trial, and the trauma, Maya becomes a gloomy and silent child. Soon, her mother sends both Maya and Bailey back to Stamps and their grandmother. Maya seems to shift from one environment to the other automatically. Her adaptability and acceptance of change are amazing—as is her growing independence, which may be the inevitable result of never knowing where she'll be next.
Back in San Francisco with her mother, after an abortive Mexican vacation with her father and a one-month stay with homeless kids in Los Angeles, she begins to acquire self-confidence. At the age of fifteen, she lies her way into a job as a street-car conductor—the first black conductor ever hired. Confused by her emerging sexuality, she decides to prove that she is a woman by inviting a teenage neighbor to have sex with her. This one-time encounter results in pregnancy. With a teenager's characteristic avoidance of unpleasant confrontations, she keeps the pending birth to herself until three weeks before the baby is born. Finally, she takes the baby boy into her bed and heart—with the encouragement of her mother.
Miss Kirwin is Maya's favorite teacher at San Francisco's George Washington High School, which Maya describes as "the first real school I attended."
See Annie Henderson
See Vivian Baxter Bailey
See Maya Johnson
See Annie Henderson
George Taylor is a self-pitying Stamps widower who uses his grief as a way to win the sympathy of others. Ignorant and superstitious, he frightens the young Maya by saying that he saw a blue-eyed baby angel hovering over him.
Reverend Howard Thomas
Reverend Thomas is a pompous preacher who makes the circuit of the Arkansas area that includes Stamps. He visits every three months and stays with the Johnsons. A colossal eater, he is fat and slovenly. Maya and Bailey hate him.
Maya's Uncle Willie is a proud but shattered man. Rendered a cripple by some childhood accident, he desperately seeks a way to be needed and appreciated. When some strangers come to buy something, he pulls himself up erect behind the counter and pretends to be normal—probably enduring great pain in the process. While gruff and often disagreeable, he loves the children. His main activity is helping in the store.
For Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the American dream was somewhere over the bridge in the white part of town. Through her keen perception and her probing insight into herself, she sees reality in all its beauty and ugliness. Eventually, Marguerite comes to terms with the fact that she is forever black and that she can succeed in a world filled with prejudice. The best example of this is her persistence in becoming the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She has learned to outwit her tormentors, who include snobby whites, pretentious blacks, and most of the men she encounters along the difficult path of growing up.
Coming of Age
Along the way, Marguerite has many mentors to guide her in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: her grandmother Annie Henderson, Mrs. Flowers, her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, and her high-school teacher, Miss Kirwin. All her guides are strong women who have preceded her and have survived the similar trials of youth that she is going through. Angelou's portrayal of black males is quite negative; most of the male characters in the book are the weak links in the chain toward her success. It thus becomes a feminist manifesto as well as the story of a shy and awkward black child who blossoms into an assured and self-confident young woman. Writes Angelou, "The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."
Prejudice in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes different forms in the three places where the Johnson children spend their young years. In deep-South Arkansas, lynchings are the ultimate threat to black freedom. In St. Louis, their white-seeming octoroon (one-eighth black) grandmother Baxter has special influence in the political arena of a seamy city. And their mother creates a buoyant and independent life through wit, talent, beauty, and determination. In San Francisco, Marguerite fights the establishment to go where no black has gone before.
Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou's strong belief in the power of education is evident. It is education, through reading, which brings Marguerite out of her silence after her rape, and education that allows her to create a better life for herself. In the author's own life, it was her love of knowledge and her intelligence that propelled her into multiple and exciting careers.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s and 1940s and today. Note any changes in the activities of this organization over the years and debate whether or not it is a danger to U.S. society.
- Compare employment practices and laws in the 1930s and the 1940s with those of today. Emphasize the status of women and minorities.
- Argue whether or not affirmative-action programs have outlived their usefulness. Support your argument with specific examples and current statistics.
Point of View
Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we see people, places, and events through the imagination of Marguerite. While she often keeps her own counsel, she carries on a private dialogue with herself that is in turn poetic, humorous, sardonic, and tragic. Gifted with the ability to see through shams and affectations, she cuts through to the quick of her observations. She knows intuitively what is real and what is phony, and she processes all this information intellectually over her growing-up years and gradually forms a positive self-image. The shy, awkward child becomes the determined, talented young adult.
Key to communicating Marguerite's point of view is the narration of the story. Angelou uses the first person "I" to tell events, giving the reader direct access to Marguerite's thoughts and concerns. Since the narration is limited to what Marguerite chooses to tell; the reader only gets to see events through her perceptions and can only learn about other characters from Marguerite's descriptions and assumptions. This technique is common in autobiographical works, however, whose intention is to communicate the experiences of one individual.
The multiple settings in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in which Marguerite acquires her diversified knowledge of people and culture also highlight the difficulties she has in integrating her experiences into a single philosophy and identity. But by the end of the book the reader feels that she knows who she is and what she wants in life. What the reader can't know is how far she may stray from this identity before she discovers her true self.
Throughout the novel Marguerite alludes, or makes reference, to several songs and poems that come to have significance for her. When a group of white children torment Marguerite's grandmother, "Momma" begins singing a series of hymns as a way to turn aside their attempts to humiliate her. These songs, such as "Bread of Heaven," recall the spirituals sung by slaves as a means of dealing with the cruelties of slavery. During Marguerite's eighth-grade graduation, after a white speaker only speaks of limited roles for her and her fellow graduates, she feels bitterness and shame until the valedictorian leads the audience in "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a poem by James Weldon Johnson. Made into a song and considered the "Negro national anthem," this poem helps Marguerite recall the difficult but triumphant struggle her ancestors have been through: "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." And of course, the title makes reference to an inspirational poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled "Sympathy," which recalls themes of freedom and self-discovery.
Conflicts over Civil Rights
Although the action in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes place in the early 1930s through the late 1940s, just after World War II had finally ended, the book was published in 1970, at a time of civil unrest and protest in the nation's black communities. The civil rights movement had splintered with the assassination of its chief architect, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, and protest riots followed; African Americans wavered between following the pacifism that had characterized his leadership and a more outspoken form of protest that had arisen during the last years of King's life. For a time, the latter won out, driven by a climbing black population in many of the nation's major cities. Fueled by outrage over the prejudice, poverty, crime, and unemployment that kept black Americans living in the inner cities—in areas where no whites would live—major race riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, among many other cities, resulting in death, injury, and destruction of property. In part, such violence stemmed from a consciousness raised by the Black Power movement, which had gained prominence beginning in 1966. Its tenets overtly pitted blacks against whites. Oakland, California, was home to the Black Panther movement, a group of militant, armed urban youth who advocated the arming of ghetto residents against predatory and racially intolerant police officers. Predictably, these two groups of gun-bearers met head-to-head in a number of violent episodes in California cities. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War preoccupied civil rights workers in King's nonviolence camp. The conflict in southeast Asia was draining valuable financial resources away from the war on poverty within America and also drawing an inordinate number of inner-city youth to their deaths in its faraway jungles.
Black Arts Movement
The written word was a powerful tool in the struggle for African-American rights and the creation of a black voice in national affairs. Primarily associated with writer-poet Amiri Baraka (formerly known, when he was a Beat poet, as LeRoi Jones), the black arts movement included members who espoused the philosophy that for black artists to indulge in empty avant-gardism or to create art that was grounded in the personal rather than the political was folly. These members of the Black Arts Movement held that black artists, unlike their middle-class white counterparts, did not have the luxury of refusing to politicize their work. Some young mavericks of the movement openly criticized forerunners like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, as well as the Harlem Renaissance as a whole, for a presumed lack of social consciousness. Angelou's book came out in striking contrast to the Black Arts Movement, since her own personal experience never takes a back seat to the problems of society. However, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is directed at other blacks, even though Angelou was well aware that a white audience would read it too. This idea of the Black Arts Movement—that black writers must stop protesting to whites and start educating blacks—is one with which Angelou's autobiography is in accord.
Compare & Contrast
1970: After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968, racial discrimination is banned from housing, public places, and the voting booth. African Americans begin to successfully run for political office in greater numbers.
Today: African Americans are entitled to vote all over the United States; many cities in both North and South have African-American mayors; and many African-American men and women serve in the U.S. House and Senate.
1930s: Schools are segregated and unequal, and blacks are blocked from living in white neighborhoods all over the United States.
1970: School segregation is illegal, and some courts have even ordered busing to enforce desegregation of schools.
Today: Enforced desegregation has been successfully challenged in the courts. School segregation and housing discrimination are illegal but persist anyway, as economic factors often split populations into racially divided neighborhoods.
1930s: During the Depression, there are limited job opportunities for African Americans, who face overt prejudice in both the South and North.
1970: Affirmative action programs begin to be enacted to offer minorities, including women and blacks, greater access to jobs and education.
Today: Civil rights laws protect the employment rights of African Americans and other minorities, although affirmative action programs are themselves being challenged as discriminatory.
1930s: Lynching—a form of vigilante "justice" in which white mobs torture and murder blacks—often goes unpunished.
1970: Lynching is prosecuted as murder and is seen less and less, even in the South.
Today: Racial attacks by mobs on individuals are very rare, although individual crimes are often motivated by racial hatred. Race-related violence is often prosecuted as a separate crime.
The Not-So-New South
In the late 1960s, civil rights activists were still struggling to achieve equality in many arenas, just as they had throughout the years Angelou depicts in Caged Bird. After the Civil War, hopes ran high among black Americans that their social, political, and economic lot in life would markedly improve. However, white Southerners employed strategies that dashed these hopes and halted the strides made toward civil rights following the war. In response to the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed that the right of citizens to vote would not be denied by any state on account of race, southern states quickly moved to exclude black voters on other, nonracial grounds—for example, an inability to read or to pay a poll tax. Similarly, they passed laws to establish a policy of segregation in society at large.
States could legally force black citizens to live in separate neighborhoods and to use separate telephone booths, restrooms, drinking fountains, cemeteries—and even different Bibles on which to swear in the courtroom. This social situation prevailed in Stamps, Arkansas, where Angelou grew up and where a strict color line, marked by the railroad tracks, divided the black from the white parts of town.
Elsewhere in the United States the situation began to change by the mid-1940s, the period in which the autobiography ends. In Hansberry v. Lee (1940) the Supreme Court ruled that blacks could not be restricted from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods. And in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) the Court ruled that segregation in interstate bus travel was unconstitutional. Yet there was also violent resistance to such change. A riot broke out, for example, after black welders were assigned to work along with white welders in an Alabama shipyard, and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan dedicated themselves to "punishing" blacks for standing up for their rights. They were responsible for many mob killings, known as lynchings; by the 1940s the number of blacks lynched in Arkansas alone since the 1880s had exceeded two hundred. The practice would not die out completely until the late 1960s and remained a very real threat during the period that Angelou recounts in her autobiography.
In the early part of the century, many blacks in the South had to scratch out a living by hiring themselves out to the white landowners as cotton-pickers. As agriculture became more mechanized, this meager source of income dried up. Many black families migrated to northern cities, in hopes of finding jobs in the North's booming industries. The passing of nativist immigration laws in the 1920s provided added impetus to southern blacks in their northward migration. These new restrictions meant the virtual closing of U.S. borders to the working-class southern and eastern Europeans who had previously made up a large portion of the factory labor force in cities such as New York and Detroit. The void soon became filled by black Americans willing to relocate hundreds of miles for the chance to become industrial workers outside the South. The decades in which Caged Bird takes place saw 458,000 blacks leaving the South in the 1930s and 1,345,400 in the 1940s. However, many were also disappointed to find that the North was no cure for racism against blacks. Prejudice just wore a different face.
Prohibition-Era St. Louis
The young characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are in St. Louis during the era of Prohibition (1920-33), when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States. During the time of Prohibition, speak-easies and gambling dens became the gathering places for drinkers, gamblers, and pleasure-seekers. Maya's mother undoubtedly was involved in illegal activities in the casinos where she worked. But Prohibition badly damaged U.S. society when the mob moved in and took over the liquor industry. Therefore, it is hard to criticize Maya's mother for breaking a bad law, especially since she was trying to support a family. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, although every southern state continued to place certain restrictions on liquor—perhaps because of the influence of conservative Christian churches, which traditionally disdained alcohol. In contrast, northern states abandoned most legislative controls.
Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings won critical acclaim and was nominated for the National Book Award. Wrote critic Sidonie Ann Smith in Southern Humanities Review,"Angelou's genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making." This book, the first of five in a series describing her life and her continuing search for self-realization, was the best received of the collection. Some posit that the reason is that in her subsequent autobiographical novels, Angelou—who went through many ups and downs in her life—was a less appealing character, though her lifelong achievements thus far seem to belie such criticism.
Critical analysis of Angelou's autobiographical prose has mainly focused on Caged Bird and its portrayal of a black woman's coming of age. Assessing the work within the tradition of African-American memoirs, George Kent notes in African AmericanAutobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays that the work stands out in its use of the imagination: " I Know Why creates a unique place within black autobiographical tradition … by its special stance toward the self, the community, and the universe, and by a form exploiting the full measure of imagination necessary to acknowledge both beauty and absurdity." Other critics have examined the manner in which Angelou's characters survive in a hostile world. Myra K. McMurry, for instance, observes in South Atlantic Bulletin how Momma serves as a role model for Marguerite, and indeed for all people fighting racism: "She triumphs not only in spite of her restrictions, but because of them. It is because, as a black woman, she must maintain the role of respect toward the white children that she discovers another vehicle for her true emotions. She has used her cage creatively to transcend it." Suzette A. Henke suggests in Traditions, Voices, and Dreams that this autobiographical work, in presenting a voice that is not often heard, "has the potential to be … a revolutionary form of writing." In the "comic and triumphant" end of the novel, writes Henke, Marguerite's "victory suggests an implicit triumph over the white bourgeoisie [middle class], whose values have flagrantly been subverted."
While the work has been praised, analyzed, and taught in classrooms, it has also met with censorship. The graphic portrayal of Marguerite's rape as well as the acceptance of her teenage, out-of-wed-lock pregnancy have inspired the most challenges. However, Opal Moore suggests that these events offer students a chance to examine important issues. As she writes in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints:"With the appropriate effort, this literary experience can assist readers of any racial or economic group in meeting their own, often unarticulated doubts, questions, fears, and perhaps assist in their own search for dignity."
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger has a Ph.D. and specializes in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the English department and an adjunct professor in the university honors program. Metzger is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on literature. In this essay, she discusses how silence functions as asubstitute for adult protection for Angelou when the adults in her life fail to protect her.
In Maya Angelou's autobiographical work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the eight-year-old Angelou is first fondled and later sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend. Angelou testifies at the man's trial, but she neglects to tell the whole story, and later, after he is murdered by her uncles, she retreats into silence, afraid that if she ever speaks again, the evil that she speaks will once more do someone injury. For Angelou, silence is representative of guilt, the guilt she feels in not telling the entire truth and the guilt she feels in having enjoyed the initial closeness that the first two sexual encounters provided. There is little attention paid to the mother's responsibility for failing to protect her only daughter, and perhaps Angelou does not feel that her mother should have, or even could have, done a better job of protecting Maya from a neglected boyfriend. A child has no complicities in sexual assault, but this point is never made by the adults in Angelou's life, and so Angelou cannot be easily freed from the fear that she is responsible for a man's death. The guilt Angelou feels is combined with a social history that promotes childhood obedience without question. Adults are the absolute authority figures and there is never any question of any response to an adult except that of total obedience. In the face of such pressure, there is little wonder that Angelou could find her only solace in silence.
What Do I Read Next?
- Other autobiographical volumes by Maya Angelou include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).
- Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) tells of the spiritual and personal awakening of a young black woman oppressed by racism and sexual abuse.
- The Bluest Eye (1969), by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, relates a similar story of a young black girl trying to grow up in a racist world.
- In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a country lawyer in a deep-South town in the 1930s represents a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
- Light in August (1932), by William Faulkner, tells of the pursuit and eventual torture and murder of a black man suspected of sleeping with a white woman.
It is the responsibility of adults to prepare children for the adult world. In the world of Angelou's childhood, this was a patriarchally controlled existence, where adults, and primarily men, controlled women's lives. In Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun suggests that prior to the feminist movement of the 1970s, mothers were responsible for preparing their daughters to live in this patriarchal world. This does not happen in Angelou's world. Angelou's mother has assumed no responsibility for her daughter's care, having—when the child was little more than a toddler—shipped her daughter halfway across the United States and into the care of her paternal grandmother. Angelou's mother ships her daughter by train, providing only a tag that says, "To Whom It May Concern," a message that is reminiscent of sending a package via parcel post. The grandmother who received this precious package of Maya sees silence as ensuring their safety: "She didn't cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one's life." Hence, maintaining silence becomes a way to preserve her world. This is the lesson that Angelou is taught. Five years later, when Angelou returns to her mother's world, she has learned the lesson of silence very well. When her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, first accosts Angelou, she is silent during the entire episode, but her mind is far from silent. She does not understand what is happening, but she does understand that she is being embraced and becomes convinced that "This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last." Angelou fails to understand the risk that Mr. Freeman presents because she is starved for any kind of human touch. Quite simply, this child yearns for a parent's caress. Although Angelou's mother has had little impact on her daughter's life, she has taught her of the dangers that men present to a woman, telling Angelou to "Keep your legs closed, and don't let nobody see your pocketbook." But the neglected child does not heed the warnings. Instead, the lesson that Angelou has learned is "when to be quiet around adults." This silence is Angelou's accustomed behavior when dealing with the adult world. She does not dare ask questions, even when she does not understand. If silence offers safety in Momma's world, it is disastrous in Angelou's world. Silence fails to protect Angelou when the adult world of sexuality quickly intrudes on the safety and security of her child's world, but she has no choice but to retreat into silence. It is the only protection she knows. If she is to protect her beloved brother, Angelou must maintain her silence, even in the face of her own confusion.
The second time that Angelou is accosted by Mr. Freeman, she again keeps quiet, but this time she has been the one to move toward his embrace. Angelou does not know that this is a sexual encounter, but she does know that she needs him to hold her. Just as she was throughout the first encounter, Angelou is again silent during the second, and she maintains this silence, just as she did earlier. Angelou does not exist as a person in Mr. Freeman's life. He ignores her when she speaks to him, and, indeed, Angelou makes clear that he is largely silent, only coming to life when her mother enters a room. But Angelou's silence only makes it easier for Mr. Freeman to use her. He sees her as a sexual object, but he never hears her child's voice, since their encounters are silent. When Angelou feels increasingly isolated, she takes refuge in the neighboring library. But libraries are by design silent, and so taking sanctuary in the silence of this place is natural. The final sexual encounter, rape, takes place as Angelou is on her way to the library, this place of silence. When Mr. Freeman asks if she liked it before, Angelou can say nothing, and he takes her silence for agreement. What she liked was being held, but she cannot explain that to him. He demands her silence, and she gives it. Silence is the only thing she can control at this point, and she knows that her silence offers protection for her brother. Of course even her silence cannot protect her attacker forever, and eventually he is caught and tried.
" The grandmother who received this precious package of Maya sees silence as ensuring their safety: 'She didn't cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one's life.' Hence, maintaining silence becomes a way to preserve her world."
At the trial, Angelou is asked if Mr. Freeman had ever touched her prior to the rape. She cannot bring herself to lie; the words stick in her throat and so once again she retreats into silence. Angelou's silence is a reaction to her fear. She fears she is somehow complicit in the attack, and she fears the anger of her family, if she tells of the earlier encounters. As a model for her silence, Angelou need only look toward her maternal grandmother, of whom Angelou writes, "Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry." This silence is a familiar recourse to Angelou. Both her grandmothers use silence to help them deal with the world, and now Angelou is using silence to protect herself. When Mr. Freeman's lawyer presses Angelou to answer a query about prior encounters, Angelou responds with hysteria. In her essay on Angelou's autobiography, "Con Artists and Storytellers: Maya Angelou's Problematic Sense of Audience," writer Francoise Lionnet examines this encounter between lawyer and victim and argues that the lawyer's questions intensify Angelou's confusion and guilt. The lawyer attempts to put the blame for the attack on Angelou, and according to Lionnet this results in Angelou's becoming convinced that "she is responsible for the rape." Consequently, Angelou learns that she must lie to survive. This contradicts her religious upbringing, which demands honesty and condemns lying. For Angelou, the only way to deal with this conflict is silence. But this silence fills her with guilt, as does her belief that she is responsible for the man's death. She has the impression that because he was corrupt, then she too must be corrupt. In other words, the victim is as guilty as the perpetrator of the crime. Of course, blaming the victim is a common defense tactic in rape trials, but an eight-year-old child would not know of this tactic or even be able to understand it clearly. Because she does feel guilty, both for her initial participation and for her lies, Angelou feels a communal guilt with her rapist. Lionnet describes Angelou as feeling that Mr. Freeman's actions have forced her to lie and in so doing forced her to abandon her moral and religious principles. In other words, according to Lionnet, "Since the rapist is responsible for making her lie, he must be evil. Because of him, evil invades her too, she is hopelessly contaminated by those troublesome bodily fluids," the fluids of the rape mingling with the lies she has told. Just when it seems that things can get no worse, Angelou's uncles avenge her attack by beating her attacker to death. This only increases the burden, since Angelou now feels that her silence has led to this man's death. Lionnet suggests that Angelou is now "in possession of another deadly secret: that every word she utters may allow her inner and evil reality to escape and to hurt others." In Angelou's eyes, by not telling the entire story, her actions have led to a man's death. As a result, this child has no other choice except to cease to speak.
During this initial period of silence, Angelou returns to her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. No one speaks of the assault, and Angelou cannot be certain that they know. But she is afraid that they do know, that everyone knows, and that they will treat her with pity. It is this pity that she cannot abide. When Uncle Willie appears to look at her with sympathy, Angelou interprets this to mean that he does know of the "incident in St. Louis," and she does not want him "to think of me as being sinful and dirty." Angelou's mother has again disappeared from her life, and no one tells this child that she is not dirty or sinful, and in her silence, Angelou cannot explain the pain she is feeling. That Angelou refers to her rape as an "incident" reflects her own inability to place responsibility on her attacker. She was raped, and he is a rapist, but she cannot label him as such without remembering her own role in the attack. That the trauma lingers is evident in an incident that occurs when a woman admires a dress that Angelou is wearing. When Momma begins to remove the dress, Angelou is terrified and confused. It will be years before doctors understand Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effect it can have on a victim's life. At that moment, all Angelou knows is terror that her dress is being removed. No one in Angelou's life really understands the trauma she has suffered, and in her silence she cannot tell them of her terror or her fears or even her guilt. In her essay on Angelou's book Christine Froula focuses on sexual violence between father figures and daughters. In "The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History" Froula suggests that Angelou's need for a father creates guilt over what happened to her at his hands. Angelou needed a father so badly that she tolerated Mr. Freeman's fondling. When she is subsequently raped, Angelou shares in the guilt for this crime. As Froula notes, "An adult can see that the daughter's need for a father's affection does not cancel his culpability for sexually abusing her," but a child cannot see this; she can only see that she enjoyed these initial encounters and now this father figure must be punished. Clearly if he deserves to be punished, she must also deserve to be punished. And when he is murdered, the only punishment Angelou can find is self-inflicted: silence. According to Froula, Angelou's sense of responsibility silences her. Her need for a father's love creates guilt over the events that unfolded, and the only way to deal with this guilt is to silence it.
Throughout the rest of Angelou's adolescence, the rape continues to haunt her life, and silence will continue to provide her with safety when needed. When she is ten years old, Angelou goes to work for a white woman, Mrs. Cullinan. Although she pities this woman, who is deceived by her husband, Angelou comes to dislike her when she cannot even pronounce her name correctly. But even more importantly, Angelou becomes convinced that Mrs. Cullinan knows of what happened to her in St. Louis and that she is laughing with her friends about the rape of a little black girl. The next day, when Mrs. Cullinan calls Angelou by the wrong name, she never corrects Mrs. Cullinan, and when the woman gives Angelou a new name, she never complains. Instead she stays silent. Later that same year, Angelou learns that a young boy admires her. Instead of feeling happy, she immediately feels suspicion: "what evil dirty things did he have in mind?" Angelou greets his admiration with silence. In this case, her silence reflects her confusion over being admired. There is no risk in being admired by a young neighbor boy and only the opportunity for fun, but Angelou cannot speak to him and eventually he disappears. Her silence has provided her with safety, but it has also robbed her of opportunity. Angelou's silence will carry her forward to a silent sexual encounter when she is a teenager. She fears she is a lesbian, but she cannot speak of her confusion and fears, just as she could not speak of them when she was eight years old. She even keeps silent about her pregnancy for eight months. Heilbrun says that getting older means not having to pretend to be what others think we must be. According to Heilbrun, this pretense is something that women do to exist in a man's world. For Angelou, her life since age eight has been defined by one man's attack on her. She has pretended to be okay when she is not. She has used silence as a refuge and as a way to create an interior world. It is clear in her ability to write of her life that Maya Angelou has found a way to banish silence and to put the pretenses of the past behind her.
Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Edward E. Eller
Eller is an assistant professor of English at Northeast Louisiana University. In the following essay, he examines how the autobiographical storyof Marguerite Johnson can stand in for the larger experience of African Americans fighting racism.
Encouraged by her editor and family to remember and write about her childhood, Maya Angelou produced the first of five autobiographies and the literary work for which she is probably best known, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She acknowledges them by writing, "I thank my mother, Vivian Baxter, and my bother, Bailey Johnson, who encouraged me to remember. And a final thanks to my editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, who gently prodded me back into the lost years." Perhaps those memories have assisted her in her diverse and incredibly productive career. In addition to the autobiographies generally recognized as a sort of "never-finished canvas," Angelou has published volumes of poetry, composed musical scores, and worked as a freelance writer and editor in America and abroad. She has also written, directed, and acted on stage and screen, and recited for the world her poem On the Pulse of the Morning for President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
Whatever the medium or type of artistic endeavor, Angelou most often celebrates the endurance and triumph of the individual over adversity. As Angelou says, "I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive." When we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we may at first wonder how anyone could survive that childhood, but we come to realize the answers to that survival.
Of course, there are many ways to interpret this book. Some critics look for its formal literary devices such as imagery or symbols. Most recognize it as a type of bildungsroman or a "coming of age" book that traces individual, social, and intellectual development. Others take the book's organization and link that to a more personal, coming to political-social awareness on Angelou's part. One critic, Pierre A. Walker, maintains that the structure "reveals a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest." In other words, Maya starts out helpless and angry about social injustices, then learns how to resist without confrontation, and finally actively and vocally protests racism and oppression.
All these interpretations make valid points, as do many others. However, Angelou herself points us to one of the most important aspects of the book. In an interview from Conversations with Maya Angelou, she relates how many people come up to her and say, "I just wrote, I mean, I just read your book." Angelou understands these slips of the tongue to mean that the readers identify with her in the book, as if it were their own autobiography. In fact, if we focus on the contrasts in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, then we see a young, black girl's coming-of-age in the America of the 1930s and 1940s that shows us what it means, or can mean, to be human.
Contrasts and opposites fill the book, and many are quite obvious. Over and over again, the girl Marguerite (Maya) compares herself to her brother Bailey. While he is handsome, quick, and glib, she refers to herself as ugly, awkward, and tongue-tied. In Stamps, Arkansas, where the children spend much of their childhood, nothing much happens except the same rounds of chores, schoolwork, church, and helping Momma and Uncle Willie in the Store. Maya says of this sameness, "The country had been in the throes of the Depression two years before the Negroes in Stamps knew it." The town was so segregated that the children can hardly believe that whites are real.
" '… 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.' She has resolved the conflict of white perceptions and actions with the reality and the triumphant spirit of her community's endurance."
On the other hand, St. Louis and San Francisco teem with activities and peoples. There are bars and restaurants and music and dancing with their mother in St. Louis and the boom of wartime later in San Francisco where the streets are crowded with soldiers and workers of all nationalities. Momma may be strong and smart, but her darkness and countrified speech sometimes make Maya cringe. Grandmother Baxter, though, is "nearly white," a trained professional nurse, with a German accent. Other contrasts, however, come upon us more subtly, in part because of the episodic structure of the book. Almost every chapter reads as a complete short story or episode that doesn't need all the other details of the book to be understood. Every episode contains its contrasts as well.
How many of us have not imagined ourselves different than the way we are, especially when we're young? This sort of imagining on the part of young Maya opens I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and shows us the first of many contrasts. The young girl stands before the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church congregation in Stamps, Arkansas. She wears a cut-down, redone white woman's dress. It is made of taffeta, however, and the girl feels that this material makes up for its "awful" lavender color. She just knew that when people saw her in that dress that her grandmother, Momma, had done over by hand, that they would recognize her real self. Her "real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of that kinky mass, and her light blue eyes would hypnotize them." They would come to understand why she didn't pick up a southern accent or the common slang, and why she had to be "forced to eat pigs tails and snouts." She "was really white" and self-assured as a movie star, just now under "a cruel fairy stepmother's spell" that had turned her 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." But here on Easter morning she ends up mumbling her lines and running out. Angelou ends this episode, "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her own displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult." It is painful to be aware. It is painful to be separate.
The reality of herself, the imagined self, and this sense of displacement must eventually be reconciled. As she matures, she sheds the notion of becoming white and comes to be proud of her race and her heritage. After her period of silence and under the tutelage of the gentlewoman, Miss Bertha Flowers, "our side's answer to the richest white woman in town," she learned she must "always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy." She learned from Miss Flowers that mute words on a page take life when "infused" with the human voice. She takes extreme pride in Momma's standing up and speaking out to the white dentist (the only dentist in Stamps) who wouldn't treat Maya's toothache because he'd "sooner stick his hand in a dog's mouth." Although her imaginings of that "showdown" are quite different than the reality, Maya knows the difference this time, liking her own version better.
Maya wrestles to come to terms with other contradictions that do not make sense. Joe Louis successfully defends the heavyweight championship title, yet the people listening to the fight on the Store's radio must stay with friends close by. "It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved we were the strongest people in the world." She feels anger at her grammar school graduation when the white school official, Donleavy, speaks of the future for the white and black schools. The white school will get "new microscopes and chemistry equipment" while the black students will get a playing field. "The white kids were going to have the chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies" while we would be athletes, "maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen." The man with his "dead words" had killed the promise and hope of the occasion. But she then revels in the triumph as the valedictorian, Henry Reed, gives his address, "To Be or Not to Be," and turns to the class, leading them in "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" so that the time was theirs again, or as Maya says, "We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. 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." She has resolved the conflict of white perceptions and actions with the reality and the triumphant spirit of her community's endurance. However, the hardest to reconcile surely comes with the brutal rape of her as a child.
When Angelou writes about the rape she suffered from her mother's boyfriend in St. Louis, she describes this horrible violation with a reference to a biblical passage. "The act of rape on an eight-yearold 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 can't." The biblical language and reference connect this horrifying episode to a spiritual tent revival she later attends in Stamps. She relates, "Hadn't He Himself said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven?" This connection seems impossibly contradictory. One act is of violation and oppression that results in Mr. Freeman's death and five years of fearful silence for Maya. The other act involves redemption and affirmation of life everlasting. How does one reconcile brutality here and the promise of milk and honey?
Just as the child had to give in to her rapist because she had no choice but to endure and survive, the blacks had no choice. The songs at the revival and songs heard from the honky-tonk as people walked home "asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?" How many times would black men have to hide in the cellars because some crowd is out for blood? How long would Momma bear with stoic composure white girls' insults? How long must any of us try to reconcile the contradictions of bigotry or sexism? Or any of the injustices people seem so intent on inflicting on another? Surely, Angelou's answer would be, as long a necessary for survival and not a moment longer. When we resolve those contradictions in our own lives, those opposites that exist simultaneously, we find the courage to be human. As we overcome those conflicts, we learn to survive because we must. Because we are human. Because Angelou shows us we can do more than endure. We can triumph. "Can't do is like Don't Care. Neither of them have a home."
Edward E. Eller, Critical Essay on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Pierre A. Walker
In the following essay, Walker examines how Angelou uses form as well as content in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to communicate her ideas on identity and racism.
Maya Angelou has told in interviews how Robert Loomis, her eventual Random House editor, goaded her into writing autobiography, teasing her with the challenge of writing literary autobiography. Considering herself a poet and playwright, she had repeatedly refused Loomis's requests that she write an autobiography until he told her that it was just as well: "'He … said that to write an autobiography—as literature—is almost impossible. I said right then I'd do it'." Angelou often admits that she cannot resist a challenge; however, it was not the challenge of writing autobiography per se that Angelou could not resist (and that led to the 1970 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but the challenge implied in Loomis's remark about the difficulty of writing autobiography "as literature."
Angelou does not elaborate on how she distinguishes literary autobiography from any other kind of autobiography, and of course, for a poststructuralist, the challenge to write literary rather than "ordinary" autobiography is meaningless because there is no difference between the two. For a formalist aesthetic, however, the distinctive qualities and characteristics of literary or poetic language as opposed to ordinary language are central operative concerns. Cleanth Brooks's belief that "the parts of a poem are related to each other organically, and related to the total theme indirectly" was a primary tenet of interpretation for American New Critics, ultimately related to their determination to distinguish literary from ordinary language. Poststructuralism in its most vehemently anti-formalist manifestations usually belittles Brooks's beliefs in organic unity and in the uniqueness of literary language, but criticisms of formalism, and of "literature" as a distinct and privileged category, so typical of much poststructuralist theorizing, become specially problematic in relation to African-American literature.
Many African-American texts were written to create a particular political impact. As a result, one can hardly ignore either the political conditions in which the slave narratives and Richard Wright's early works, for example, were composed or the political impact their authors (and editors and publishers, at least of the slave narratives) intended them to have. Even African-American texts that are not obviously part of a protest tradition are received in a political context, as is clear from the tendency in much critical commentary on Zora Neale Hurston to demonstrate an elusive element of protest in her novels.
So important is the political to the experience of African-American literature that it comes as no surprise that the increasing incorporation of the African-American literary tradition into mainstream academic literary studies since 1980 coincides exactly with the increasingly greater significance of the political in the prevailing critical paradigm: what better for a political literary criticism to address than an overtly political literature?
The problem is that African-American literature has, on more than one occasion, relied on confirming its status as literature to accomplish its political aims. Since slavery relied on a belief that those enslaved were not really human beings, slave narrators responded by writing books that emphasized the fact that they themselves were humans who deserved to be treated as such. Since emancipation, African-American authors have used the same strategy to fight the belief in racial hierarchies that relegated them to second-class citizen status. One way to do this was to produce "high art," which was supposed to be one of the achievements of the highest orders of human civilization. African-American poetry provides many examples of this strategy: Claude McKay's and Countee Cullen's reliance on traditional, European poetic forms and James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards." Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel," for instance, relies on recognizable English "literary" features: Shakespearean sonnet form, rhyme, meter, references to Greek mythology, and the posing of a theological question as old as the Book of Job and as familiar as William Blake's "The Tyger."
Thus for a critical style to dismiss the closely related categories of form and of literature is to relegate to obscurity an important tradition of African-American literature and an important political tool of the struggle in the United States of Americans of African descent. This is clearly true in respect to Caged Bird, which displays the kind of literary unity that would please Brooks, but to the significant political end of demonstrating how to fight racism. Angelou wrote Caged Bird in the late 1960s, at the height of the New Criticism, and therefore in order for it to be the literary autobiography Loomis referred to, Angelou's book had to display features considered at the time typical of literature, such as organic unity. This is a political gesture, since in creating a text that satisfies contemporary criteria of "high art," Angelou underscores one of the book's central themes: how undeservedly its protagonist was relegated to second-class citizenship in her early years. To ignore form in discussing Angelou's book, therefore, would mean ignoring a critical dimension of its important political work.
Because scholarly discussions of Angelou's autobiographical works have only appeared in any significant number in the last fifteen years, Caged Bird and her other books have avoided—or, depending on one's view, been spared—the kind of formal analysis typically associated with New Criticism or Structuralism. Scholarly critics of Caged Bird, often influenced by feminist and African-American studies, have focused on such issues as whether the story of Angelou's young protagonist is personal or universal, or on race, gender, identity, displacement, or a combination of these. In relation to these issues, they discuss important episodes like the scene with the "powhitetrash" girls, young Maya's rape and subsequent muteness, her experience with Mrs. Flowers, the graduation, the visit to the dentist, Maya's month living in a junkyard, or her struggle to become a San Francisco street-car conductor. What they do not do is analyze these episodes as Angelou constructed them—often juxtaposing disparate incidents within an episode—and arranged and organized them, often undermining the chronology of her childhood story and juxtaposing the events of one chapter with the events of preceding and following ones so that they too comment on each other. The critics do not explore how Angelou, who has never denied the principle of selection in the writing of autobiography, shaped the material of her childhood and adolescent life story in Caged Bird to present Maya's first sixteen years, much as a bildungsroman would, as a progressive process of affirming identity, learning about words, and resisting racism. What scholars have focused on in Caged Bird does merit attention, but an attention to the formal strategies Angelou uses to emphasize what the book expresses about identity and race reveals a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression, a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest.
The progression from rage and indignation to subtle resistance to active protest gives Caged Bird a thematic unity that stands in contrast to the otherwise episodic quality of the narrative. To claim thematic unity is to argue that form and content work together, an assertion that is an anathema to much current literary theory. However, the formal in Caged Bird is the vehicle of the political, and not analyzing this text formally can limit one's appreciation of how it intervenes in the political. Critics should not focus on the political at the expense of the formal but instead should see the political and the formal as inextricably related. Indeed, some of the most well-received works on American literature in the last decade offer compelling demonstrations of such a symbiosis of form and content. Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs and Walter Benn Michaels' The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, for instance, are exemplary instances of new historicism or cultural criticism, but they nevertheless integrate virtuosic close formal analyses of literary texts into their overall projects.
Caged Bird's commentators have discussed how episodic the book is, but these episodes are crafted much like short stories, and their arrangement throughout the book does not always follow strict chronology. Nothing requires an autobiography to be chronological, but an expectation of chronology on the reader's part is normal in a text that begins, as Caged Bird does, with earliest memories. Nevertheless, one of the most important early episodes in Caged Bird becomes much earlier in the book than it actually did in Angelou's life: the scene where the "powhitetrash" girls taunt Maya's grandmother takes up the book's fifth chapter, but it occurred when Maya "was around ten years old," two years after Mr. Freeman rapes her (which occurs in the twelfth chapter).
Situating the episode early in the book makes sense in the context of the previous chapters: the third chapter ends with Angelou describing her anger at the "used-to-be-sheriff" who warned her family of an impending Klan ride, and the fourth chapter ends with her meditation on her early inability to perceive white people as human. The scene with the "powhitetrash" girls follows this, indicating how non-human white people can be. But if that was all that motivated the organization of her episodes, Angelou could as easily have followed the meditation on white people's non-humanity with the episode where young Maya breaks the china of her white employer, Mrs. Cullinan. What really organizes chapters three through five is that Angelou presents the futility of indignation and the utility of subtle resistance as ways of responding to racism. The scene with the ex-sheriff comes at the beginning of this sequence and only leaves Maya humiliated and angry:
If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff's act of kindness, I would be unable to say anything in his behalf. His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan's coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear.
" The progression from rage and indignation to subtle resistance to active protest gives Caged Bird a thematic unity that stands in contrast to the otherwise episodic quality of the narrative."
The scene with the "powhitetrash" girls causes Maya to react with the same helpless anger and humiliation, but through the response of her grand-mother Henderson (whom she calls Momma) to the girls' rudeness and crudity, Maya learns there can be a better and more effective way to respond.
At first, Maya's reaction to the "powhitetrash" girls is like her reaction to the used-to-be sheriff: rage, indignation, humiliation, helplessness. When the girls ape her grandmother's posture, Maya weeps, thinks of getting her uncle's rifle, and wants to throw lye and pepper on them and to scream at them "that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods." When they leave and Momma politely calls good-bye to them, Maya's rage peaks:
I burst. A firecracker July-the-Fourth burst. How could Momma call them Miz? The mean nasty things. Why couldn't she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them breasting the hill? What did she prove? And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz?
But once the girls leave, young Maya realizes that her grandmother has achieved something: "Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand … Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won." Angelou claims that her ten-year-old self could not fully understand what had happened, though she did understand that there had been a contest of wills and that her grandmother had won it.
The young girl can be only vaguely conscious of how to comprehend the nature of the contest, but her next act and the organization of the whole chapter indicate nonetheless how readers should comprehend it. Angelou's description of the "powhitetrash" girls emphasizes their dirtiness. They are "grimy, snotty-nosed girls," and "The dirt of [their] cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms and faces to make them all of a piece." In contrast to this, Maya's household is a model of cleanliness. The first thing Momma tells Maya after the "powhitetrash" girls have left is to wash her face. This seems appropriate because of how much Maya had been crying, but its real significance is apparent when considered in the context of the chapter's beginning and of what Maya does at the end of the chapter. The chapter begins: "'Thou shall not be dirty' and 'Thou shall not be impudent' were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation," and the two subsequent paragraphs recount the ends to which Momma went to ensure her grandchildren's cleanliness. At first glance, this would appear to have nothing to do with the pain and humiliation of racism. But what the entire chapter demonstrates and what the ten-year-old Maya vaguely understands is that cleanliness, racism, and her grand-mother's "victory" over the "powhitetrash" girls have everything to do with each other. Maya would seem to have understood this—even though the adult Angelou claims she did not—for once she has washed her face, without being told to do so, she rakes the trampled front yard into a pattern that her grandmother calls "'right pretty."'
Maya and Momma demonstrate that, unlike the white trash girls, they are neither dirty nor impudent. This is where the victory lies. Part of it consists of Momma's resisting the white girls' attempts to goad her into descending to their level of impudence. But another part of the victory lies in maintaining personal dignity through the symbolic importance of cleanliness and politeness. The victory will not of itself bring about the downfall of segregation (which is perhaps why some critics see Grandmother Henderson as ultimately helpless against racist oppression, but it does allow Momma and Maya to be proud of themselves. By demonstrating their own cleanliness and politeness, Maya and her grandmother establish their family's respectability in the face of racism and subtly throw the attempt to degrade them back on their oppressor. Furthermore, there is a more effective strategy for reacting to racism and segregation than rage and indignation, a strategy of subtle resistance, what Dolly McPherson calls "the dignified course of silent endurance." Later episodes demonstrate the limitations of subtle resistance, but one should not underestimate its powers: without risking harm to life, liberty, or property, Momma is able to preserve her human dignity in the face of the white girls' attempts to belittle her. It may be all that she can do in the segregated South at the time, but it is something. What is more, as Angelou subsequently shows, it serves as a basis from which Maya can later move to actively protesting and combating racism.
An important feature of the chapter is that Angelou organizes it like a short story. It begins where it ends, with cleanliness and raking the yard bracketing the scene with the white trash girls, and it leaves the reader to work out the relationship between the confrontation with the girls and the cleaning of the yard. Because of this organization, the chapter becomes more than just a narration of bigoted behavior and Momma's and Maya's responses to it: "Such experiences," says McPherson, "are recorded not simply as historical events, but as symbolic revelations of Angelou's inner world." The "powhitetrash" chapter takes on the additional dimension of a lesson in the utility of endowing everyday activities such as washing, raking a yard, or minding one's manners with symbolic value as a way of resisting bigotry. Making every minute of the day a symbolic means of fighting segregation in turn means that segregation is not a helpless and hopeless situation.
Angelou organizes the fifteenth chapter, the one about Mrs. Flowers, in a similarly tight fashion, interrelating the themes of racial pride, identity, and the power of words that run throughout. The positive effect that the attention of the elegant Mrs. Flowers has on the insecurity and identity crisis of young Maya is obvious. By helping Maya to begin to have some self-confidence, Mrs. Flowers contributes to the young girl's affirmation of her identity: "I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected … for just being Marguerite Johnson … she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book." Such respect and affection from an older person Maya admired surely had an important positive effect on a young girl suffering from the guilt and self-loathing that resulted from being raped by her mother's boyfriend. It is no wonder Angelou feels that Mrs. Flowers "threw me my first life line."
While the Mrs. Flowers chapter seems, at first glance, not to have much to do with the politics of racism, this important step in Maya's sense of identity has everything to do with race. Since she had been twice sent away by her parents to live with her grandmother, it is no surprise that Maya had an insecurity and identity problem. 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 and blond" hair. At that point, Maya entirely separates her sense of self from her sense of race, and this is part of her identity crisis, since she refuses to accept being who she is and hankers after a foreign identity that is a compound of received ideas of white feminine beauty. By the end of the book, the opposite is the case. When the white secretary of the San Francisco street-car company repeatedly frustrates her attempts for a job interview, Maya is at first tempted not to take it personally: "The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites … I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer." But then Maya decides that the rebuffs, which have everything to do with her race, also have everything to do with her personally, and this is because her personal identity and her racial identity cannot be entirely separated: "The whole charade we had played out in that crummy waiting room had directly to do with me, Black, and her, white." Attaining the street-car conductor's job becomes not only a victory for civil rights, as a result, but also a personal victory for Maya's sense of self. One of the crucial transition points in this evolution over the course of the entire book from the total separation of self-image and race to the connection of the two comes in the Mrs. Flowers chapter, for not only does Mrs. Flowers make Maya feel liked and respected, but "she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself." This is the first statement of black racial pride in the book, but others appear later: Joe Louis's victory, which "proved that we were the strongest people in the world," and Maya's conclusion at the end of the graduation scene that "I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race."
The Mrs. Flowers chapter emphasizes black racial pride by combining two apparently disparate episodes on the basis of their thematic affinity, much as the "powhitetrash" chapter did. Here the affinity is not cleanliness but the power of words, a theme central to African-American autobiography, from the slave narratives to Richard Wright's Black Boy and beyond. The importance of the power of words, in themselves and in poetry, and by implication, the importance of literature run throughout Caged Bird, especially after the rape, when Maya fears that her lie at Mr. Freeman's trial caused his death. Black Boy demonstrates the negative power of words each time Wright is abused for not saying the right thing, yet the book concludes on a positive note when Wright realizes that he can harness the power of words to his own artistic and political ends. Much the same thing happens in Caged Bird. Maya refuses to speak because she fears the potentially fatal power of words, but throughout the second half of the book she acknowledges that the imagination can harness the power of words to great ends. One of the high points in this realization comes at the end of the graduation scene, when the audience, having been insulted by a white guest speaker, lifts its morale by singing James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." Maya realizes that she "had never heard it before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them," and this leads her to appreciate the African-American poetic tradition as she never had before (and Angelou expresses that appreciation with an allusion to another Johnson poem): "Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?". Because Johnson's words, like Angelou's story, are gathered "from the stuff of the black experience, with its suffering and its survival," to use Keneth Kinnamon's words, the singing of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" at the end of the graduation episode "is a paradigm of Angelou's own artistic endeavor in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
Mrs. Flowers lays the groundwork for this later appreciation of the power of the poetic word by explicitly stating the lesson of the positive power of words in her conversation with the ten-year-old Maya (her message is further emphasized because the main point of her invitation and attention to the mute girl is to convince her to use words again). "[B]ear in mind," Mrs. Flowers tells Maya, "language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone that separates him from the lower animals … Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning." Mrs. Flowers's speech and her reading from Dickens themselves make Maya appreciate poetry—"I heard poetry for the first time in my life," she says about Mrs. Flowers's reading—and the spoken word, but Angelou arranges the entire chapter to emphasize the power of words. The chapter begins with a description of Mrs. Flowers and her elegant command of standard English, which contrasts in their conversations with Momma's heavy dialect, much to Maya's shame: "Shame made me want to hide my face … Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, 'How are you, Mrs. Flowers?' … 'Brother and Sister Wilcox is sho'ly the meanest—' 'Is,' Momma? 'Is'? Oh, please, not 'is,' Momma, for two or more." As a result, Angelou has focused the chapter on the importance of words and their pronunciation, even in its very first pages, before Maya enters Mrs. Flowers's house.
The chapter's end, after Maya returns from her visit, also emphasizes the importance of words, this time in contrast to the way white people use words. When Maya tells her brother, "By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookies—," Momma threatens to beat her granddaughter. The crime is that since "Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light," saying "by the way" was, in Momma's view, blasphemous. This episode would seem thematically unrelated to the rest of the chapter and only an example of Momma's domestic theocracy were it not for the chapter's final sentence: "When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: 'Whitefolks use "by the way" to mean while we're on the subject,' Momma reminded us that 'whitefolks' mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ."' While the "by the way" episode concludes the chapter, Black Boy fashion, with an example of the awful power of words, this final sentence concludes both the episode and chapter just as the emphasis on cleanliness concluded the "powhitetrash" chapter: through their greater attention to details, the Henderson/Johnson clan shows itself to be superior to whites, and instead of showing Momma to be abusive and tyrannic, the "by the way" episode anticipates the affirmation later in the book of the strength blacks find in the careful—even poetic—use of words, just as Mrs. Flowers does in her reading and in her speech about words.
The internal organization of chapters, as in the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Flowers chapters, into thematic units that would make Cleanth Brooks proud is but one of the effects Angelou uses in Caged Bird. Equally effective is the way Angelou juxtaposes chapters. For example, she follows the Mrs. Flowers chapter, with its lessons on the power of words and on identity, with the chapter (the sixteenth) where Maya breaks Mrs. Cullinan's dishes because the white employer neglects to take a single but important word—Maya's name—and Maya's identity seriously. This chapter comments, then, on the previous one by showing Maya acting on the basis of what she has learned in the previous chapter about the importance of words and about affirming identity. Maya's smashing of the dishes is also an important stage in the progression of strategies for responding to racial oppression from helpless indignation, to subtle resistance, to active protest. No longer helplessly angered and humiliated, as she was by the former sheriff and the white girls taunting her grandmother, Maya shows in the Mrs. Cullinan chapter that she has internalized the lesson of the "powhitetrash" episode and can figure out, with her brother's advice, a way to resist her white employer's demeaning of her that is subtle and yet allows her to feel herself the victor of an unspoken confrontation. After Mrs. Cullinan insists on calling her Mary instead of Margaret (which best approximates her real name, Marguerite), Maya realizes that she can neither correct her employer nor simply quit the job. Like her grandmother with the rude white girls, Maya cannot openly confront her oppressor, nor can she allow the situation to continue. Instead she breaks Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dishes and walks out, exulting as Mrs. Cullinan tells her guests, "Her name's Margaret, g—dd—n it, her name's Margaret!".
Angelou follows this chapter with a series of three chapters, the seventeenth through the nineteenth, each of which depicts subtle black resistance to white oppression. However, while the sixteenth chapter ends with Maya exulting at the efficacy of her resistance of Mrs. Cullinan, these chapters increasingly express the limitations of subtle resistance. The seventeenth chapter tells of Maya's and Bailey's viewing movies starring Kay Francis, who resembles their mother, and describes how Maya turns the stereotypical depiction of black people in Hollywood movies back onto the unknowing white members of the audience. As the whites snicker at the Stepin Fetchit-like black chauffeur in one Kay Francis comedy, Maya turns the joke on them:
I laughed too, but not at the hateful jokes … I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a big mansion with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother. And it was funny to think of the whitefolks' not knowing that the woman they were adoring could be my mother's twin, except that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier.
This passage works very much like Momma's victory over the white trash girls: the whites' taunts are turned back on them, though the whites may not know it. Nonetheless, this permits the black person to feel superior instead of humiliated while avoiding the kind of open confrontation that could lead to violence. What is problematic about the seventeenth chapter is that, as in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, the end of the chapter casts a shadow on the success achieved in the moment of subtle resistance by describing Bailey's very different reaction to the movie: it makes him sullen, and on their way home, he terrifies Maya by running in front of an oncoming train.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, which tell of the revival meeting and the Joe Louis fight, a black community is able to feel superior to whites. Both chapters, though, end ambiguously, with a reminder that the feeling of superiority is transitory and fragile. At the revival, the congregation thrills to a sermon that subtly accuses whites of lacking charity while reminding the congregation of the ultimate reward for their true charity. The congregation leaves the revival feeling, "It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell." Again, the oppressed are able to feel superior without risking the violence of an open confrontation. The final two paragraphs of the chapter, however, compare the gospel music at the revival with the "ragged sound" of the "barrelhouse blues" coming from the honky-tonk run by "Miss Grace, the good-time woman." Like the parishioners at the revival, the customers of the suitably named Miss Grace "had forsaken their own distress for a little while." However,
Reality began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning. After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver's seat. How long, merciful Father? How long? … All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?
Whereas the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Cullinan chapters ended on a note of victory, this chapter ends on one that rings more of defeat. This is because the book moves through the three strategies for responding to white racist oppression—helpless indignation, subtle resistance, and active protest—and at this point is preparing the transition from the limited victories of subtle resistance to the outright victory of active protest.
The next chapter, the nineteenth, which describes the community at the store listening to a Joe Louis match, follows the same pattern as the revival chapter. Louis's victory provides his fans a stirring moment of racial pride and exaltation: "Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother's son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas." But while Louis's victory allows his black fans to feel themselves stronger and superior to their white oppressors, there are limits to how far the black community can rejoice in its superiority. The chapter ends by mentioning that those who lived far out of town spent the night with friends in town because, "It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world."
Because chapters eighteen and nineteen explore the limits to subtle, but passive, resistance, the book has to go on to present other possible ways of responding to white oppression. The climactic response, one that consists of active resistance and outright protest, is Maya's persisting and breaking the color line of the San Francisco street-car company, described in the thirty-fourth chapter. Since Caged Bird was written in the late sixties, at the height of the black power movement, and at a time that was still debating the value of Martin Luther King's belief in non-violent protest, it is no surprise that this act of protest is the climactic moment of resistance to white oppression in the book, a moment that says: Momma's type of resistance was fine in its time and place, but now it is time for some real action. There are at least three other episodes in the second half of Caged Bird, however, which explore the line between subtle but passive resistance and active, open protest: the graduation scene (chapter twenty-three), the dentist scene (chapter twenty-four), and the story Daddy Clidell's friend, Red Leg, tells of double-crossing a white con man (chapter twenty-nine).
Falling as they do between the Joe Louis chapter and the San Francisco street-car company chapter, these three episodes chart the transition from subtle resistance to active protest. The graduation scene for the most part follows the early, entirely positive examples of subtle resistance in Caged Bird. The only difference is that the resistance is no longer so subtle and that it specifically takes the form of poetry, which in itself valorizes the African-American literary tradition as a source for resisting white racist oppression. Otherwise, the graduation chapter conforms to the pattern established by the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Cullinan chapters: first, there is the insult by the white person, when the speaker tells the black audience of all the improvements which the white school will receive—improvements that far surpass the few scheduled for the black school. There is Maya's first response of humiliation and anger: "Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds," shared now by the community: "[T]he proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads." Then there 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: "We were on top again. As always, again. We survived."
The primary difference in the graduation chapter is that because the audience sings together, the resistance is a community action. The resistance is still not exactly an outright protest and it still avoids open confrontation, since the white insulter has left and does not hear the singing. Otherwise, the scene resembles a civil rights protest two decades later. The graduation also serves as an introduction for the dentist chapter, which is similar to the graduation chapter because of the way it highlights literature as a possible source for resisting racist oppression, and which is the crucial transitional chapter from subtle resistance to active protest because it opens the door to the eventuality of open confrontation by presenting the closest instance in the book of a black person in Stamps openly confronting a racist white.
The insult in the dentist chapter occurs when Stamps's white and only dentist—to whom Maya's grandmother had lent money, interest-free and as a favor—refuses to treat Maya's excruciating toothache, telling Maya and Momma, "[M]y policy is I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's." From this point on, though, the chapter ceases to follow the pattern of the previous examples of resistance. Instead, Momma leaves Maya in the alley behind the dentist's office, and in a passage printed in italics, enters the office transformed into a superwoman, and threatens to run the now-trembling dentist out of town. Readers quickly perceive that this passage is italicized because it is Maya's fantasy, but they do have to read a few sentences of the fantasy before realizing it. The chapter ends, after Maya and Momma travel to the black dentist in Texarkana, with Angelou's explanation of what really happened inside the white dentist's office—Momma collected interest on her loan to the dentist, which pays the bus fare to Texarkana—and Angelou's remark: "I preferred, much preferred, my version."
The fantasy scene bears attention because it is the only one like it in Caged Bird. It is the only italicized passage in the book and the only one that confuses the reader—even if only for a moment—over what is real and what is fantasy. Some critics have argued that this passage serves the purpose of underlining how limited Momma's ability to fight racism is, and it is true that in a better world, Momma would have been able to exact proper and courteous care from a dentist who was beholden to her. This reading, however, does not account for either the uniqueness of the presentation of the passage or the very real pride Maya feels for her grandmother as they ride the bus between Stamps and Texarkana: "I was so proud of being her granddaughter and sure that some of her magic must have come down to me." On the one hand, the italicized passage does highlight the contrast between what Maya wishes her grandmother could do to a racist with what little she can do, thus again demonstrating the limitations of subtle resistance as an overall strategy for responding to racist oppression. On the other hand, the fantasy passage anticipates the kind of outright confrontations between oppressed black and racist oppressor that occurred when Maya broke the street-car company's color line and in the civil rights movement. Although it is only a fantasy, it is the first instance in Caged Bird of a black person openly confronting a racist white, and thus is the first hint that such confrontation is a possibility.
The fact that the fantasy passage is an act of imagination is also significant, since it hints that imagination and storytelling can be forms of resisting racism. It is natural to read the fantasy passage in this way because of its placement immediately after the apostrophe to "Black known and unknown poets" at the end of the graduation chapter. Because of this passage praising black poets, we are all the more inclined to see the imagined, italicized, fantasy passage five pages later as itself an instance of poetry. For one, the apostrophe includes in the category of "poets" anyone who uses the power of the word—"include preachers, musicians and blues singers." Thus, anyone who uses language to describe pain and suffering and their causes (i.e., blues singers) belongs in the category of poets. According to this definition, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a blues singer, and therefore a poet, too, since telling why the caged bird sings is an instance of describing pain and suffering and their causes, an instance of the blues. Loosely defined, poetry is also an act of imagination, and thus the italicized fantasy passage in the dentist chapter is poetic, since it is an act of imagination. In fact, it is the first instance of Maya being a poet, and thus the first step towards the far more monumental act of writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings itself. Poetry, in all its forms, can be an act of resistance. The graduation chapter has already made that clear, but the dentist chapter makes it clear that the victim of racial oppression can herself become a poet and use her poetry as a form of resistance. Maya had begun to learn the positive power of poetry and of words in the Mrs. Flowers chapter. Now she begins the process of harnessing the power of words to positive effect, a process that concludes with the composition almost thirty years later of the very book in hand.
The final instance of not-quite-outright resistance is the scam Red Leg tells (in chapter twenty-nine) of pulling on a white con man. This episode is not the open, active protest of Maya's integration of the street-cars, since it does not involve a direct confrontation with the white racist, but it is closer to it than any of the previous examples of resistance because the white person ends up knowing that he has been had at his own game. The inclusion of the episode is at first glance irrelevant to the heroine's personal development, but Angelou's comments at the end of the chapter make clear how the passage fits with the rest of the book. For one, Angelou remarks that, "It wasn't possible for me to regard [Red Leg and his accomplice] as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements." The reason for her pride is that these black con artists are achieving revenge for wrongs incurred against the entire race: "'We are the victims of the world's most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It's all right if we do a little robbing now."' The scam is, therefore, another example of fighting back against white domination and racist oppression, an example that, like the others, meets with the author's approval.
The scam artist chapter ends, like so many other chapters, with a paragraph that appears to have little to do with what precedes. It tells of how Maya and her black schoolmates learned to use Standard English and dialect in their appropriate settings. This short paragraph certainly belongs to the commentary running throughout the book on appreciating the significance and power of words: "We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial." It also serves to emphasize the superior ability of blacks to adapt to and get the best of circumstances and situations: "My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s's from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs." Angelou shows here the superior adaptability of her black schoolmates (and that Maya has come a long way from her scorn of her grandmother's use of dialect): the blacks learn all the whites do and more. This lesson is entirely appropriate to the con artist chapter, since what the stories about pulling scams demonstrate is the black version of heroism, which is to make the most of what little one has—in other words, adaptability: "[I]n 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."
Within strictly legal confines, such an ability is the essence of the American myth of success, and undoubtedly, at least part of the appeal of Caged Bird is that it corresponds both to this definition of black heroism and to the outline of a typical success story. The product of a broken family, raped at age eight, Angelou was offered at first "only the crumbs" from her "country's table." She suffers from an inferiority complex, an identity crisis, and the humiliation of racist insults. By the end of the book, however, she no longer feels inferior, knows who she is, and knows that she can respond to racism in ways that preserve her dignity and her life, liberty, and property, and she knows—and demonstrates in addition through the very existence of the book itself—that she can respond by using the power of words. It may be impossible to convince a poststructuralist that there is something uniquely literary about Angelou's autobiography, but certainly part of what this autobiography is about is the power and utility of literature and its own genesis and existence as a protest against racism. One serves Angelou and Caged Bird better by emphasizing how form and political content work together. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says in respect to the general tradition of autobiographies by African-American women:
The theoretical challenge lies in bringing sophisticated skills to the service of a politically informed reading of texts. To read well, to read fully, is inescapably to read politically, but to foreground the politics, as if these could somehow be distinguished from the reading itself, is to render the reading suspect.
To neglect many of the formal ways Caged Bird expresses its points about identity, words, and race is to ignore the extent to which Angelou successfully met Loomis's challenge, an important aspect of her artistic accomplishment, and the potential utility of this text in literary classrooms, especially those that emphasize combining formal and ideologically-based approaches to analyzing literature.
Pierre A. Walker, "Racial Protest, Identity, Words, and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1995, pp. 91-105.
Liliane K. Arensberg
In the following essay, Arensberg asserts that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings "suggests a sense of self as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn."
In 1970, at a time when most blacks and a growing number of liberal whites affirmed the ad-campaign motto that "Black is Beautiful," Maya Angelou's autobiography was published. An un-beautiful, awkward, rather morose, dreamy, and "too-big Negro girl," young Maya Angelou seems an unlikely heroine. Neither the pretty and radiant prom queen of her all-black high school, like Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi, nor the acknowledged genius of her doting family like Nikki Giovanni in Gemini, the child Angelou writes of is unadmired, unenvied, uncoddled as she makes her precarious way (on "broad feet," she reminds us) into the world.
Spanning the first sixteen years of her life, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings opens with Maya Angelou's arrival, at the green age of three, in dusty Stamps, Arkansas. Her parents' marriage dissolved, Maya and her older brother, Bailey, have been sent across country from their parent's home in Long Beach, California, to Momma's, their paternal grand-mother's in Stamps. After five years of chores, books, fantasies and escapades with Bailey, Maya rejoins her mother in teeming, gray St. Louis. There she is raped, at eight, by her mother's lover, who in retaliation is murdered by her uncles. A guiltridden, terrified and bewildered "woman," Maya is again sent to Stamps. Upon her graduation from Lafayette County Training School, at fourteen Maya rejoins her mother, now living in San Francisco. She spends part of one summer at a trailer camp in Southern California with her father and his lover, Dolores. When returning with him from a jaunt into Mexico, Maya is stabbed in a quarrel with Dolores. Fearing another murderous reprisal, Maya is unwilling to return to any of her homes. Instead, she seeks refuge in a car junkyard. There "a collage of Negro, Mexican and white" youths initiate her into a redeeming vision of universal brotherhood—one which Malcolm X could only discover thousands of miles from the United States in Mecca. She returns to San Francisco, a sobered and self-possessed young woman, challenges the racial bar to be hired as the town's first black female streetcar conductor. At the end of the book Maya becomes mother to an illegitimate son, the offspring of her "immaculate pregnancy."
This brief sketch, though excluding some very crucial personalities and episodes in her youth, emphasizes the rootlessness of Maya Angelou's early years. Angelou herself underscores this pattern of mobility in the opening phrase of her introduction:
"What are you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay.… "
Indeed, geographic movement and temporary residence become formative aspects of her growing identity—equal in importance to experiences and relationships more commonly regarded as instrumental in forming the adult self. Appropriately, this poetic phrase becomes the young girl's motto or "shield" as Angelou calls it; Maya's means of proclaiming her isolation while defending against its infringement.
Shuttled between temporary homes and transient allegiances Maya necessarily develops a stoic flexibility that becomes not only her "shield," but, more importantly, her characteristic means of dealing with the world. This flexibility is both blessing and curse: it enables her to adapt to various and changing environments, but it also keeps her forever threatened with loss or breakdown of her identity, as will presently be shown.
Indeed, Angelou's descriptions of her younger self seem almost entirely comprised of negatives: she is not wanted by her parents who hold over her the unspoken, but everpresent, threat of banishment; she is not beautiful or articulate like her brother, Bailey; she is too introverted and passive to assert herself on her environment; and, finally, she is a child in a world of enigmatic adults, and a black girl in a world created by and for the benefit of white men.
Furthermore, Maya's geographic worlds are each separate and self-contained. There is the world of Momma and her Store in stamps, a puritan world of racial pride, religious devotion and acquiescence to one's worldly lot. And there is her "wild and beautiful" mother's world of pool halls, card sharks, fast dancing, fast talking and fast loving. Combining and transcending both is the private and portable world of Maya's imagination.
If there is one stable element in Angelou's youth it is this dependence on books. Kipling, Poe, Austen and Thackeray, Dunbar, Johnson, Hughes and Du Bois, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and Captain Marvel comics—all are equally precious to this lonely girl. Shakespeare, whose Sonnet 29 speaks to Maya's own social and emotional alienation, becomes her "first white love." As it does for Mary Antin, Anaïs Nin, and other female autobiographers, the public library becomes a quiet refuge from the chaos of her personal life. "I took out my first library card in St. Louis", she notes. And it is the public library she attempts to reach after her rape. Later, when running away from her father, she hides in a library. Indeed, when her life is in crisis, Maya characteristically escapes into the world of books.
As artifacts creating complete and meaningful universes, novels and their heroes become means by which Maya apprehends and judges her own bewildering world. Thus, Louise, her first girlfriend, reminds Maya of Jane Eyre; while Louise's mother, a domestic, Maya refers to as a governess. Mrs. Flowers, who introduces her to the magic of books, appeals to Maya because she was like "women in English novels who walked the moors … with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked the 'heath' and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen." Curiously, it is this imaginative association with a distant, extinct and colonial world that makes Mrs. Flowers one who "made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself."
But the plight of lovers, madmen and poets is also Maya's problem. "The little princesses who were mistaken for maids, and the long-lost children mistaken for waifs," writes Angelou, "became more real to me than our house, our mother, our school or Mr. Freeman." She is so consummately involved in the world of fantasy that even while being raped she "was sure any minute my mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would burst in the door and save me."
" … while the book's tone is predominantly witty, even light, resonating just below the surface of almost every page of Angelou's autobiography is the hidden, but everpresent, theme of death."
As in this quotation, the style by which Angelou describes her youth seems in counterpoint to the meaning of her narrative. It is written with a humor and wry wit that belies the personal and racial tragedies recorded. Since style is such a revealing element in all autobiographies, hers, especially, seems a conscious defense against the pain felt at evoking unpleasant memories. Moreover, wit operates as a formidable tool of the outraged adult; by mocking her enemies, Angelou overcomes them. Thus the gluttonous Reverend Thomas gets his just desserts at church when "throwing out phrases like home-run balls" loses his dentures in a scuffle with an over-zealous parishioner; the self-serving condescension of "fluttering" Mrs. Cullinan is ridiculed in a "tragic ballad" on "being white, fat, old and without children"; so, too, with the vanity and carelessness of her mother's "lipstick kisses" and her father's pompous " ers and errers" as he struts among Stamps' curious "down-home folk." The adult writer's irony retaliates for the tongue-tied child's helpless pain.
The primary object, however, for Angelou's wit is herself. At times maudlin, always highly romantic and withdrawn, the young Maya is a person the older writer continually finds comic. Her idolatrous attachment to Bailey, her projections of fantasy upon reality, her reverence of her mother's stunning beauty, her strained attempts at sympathy for her self-enamoured father, her ingenuous attitude towards sexuality—these are but a few of the many and recurring aspects of her younger self the adult mocks.
The basic motive for writing one's autobiography, some believe, is to be understood, accepted, and loved. Angelou's willingness to ridicule former self-deceptions—more precisely, her former self—indicates the adult's fearlessness of the reader's judgments and her own critical stance towards herself. If Angelou's voice in re-creating her past is, therefore, ironic, it is however supremely controlled.
Nevertheless, despite the frankness of her narrative, Angelou avoids charting a direct path to her present self. Unlike Gemini, or Coming of Age in Mississippi, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Richard Wright's Black Boy—books in the same genre—Angelou's autobiography barely mentions the emergent woman within the girlish actor. Although Roy Pascal believes that "the autobiographer must refer us continually outwards and onwards, to the author himself and to the outcome of all the experiences," Maya Angelou proves an exception to the rule.
Because Angelou's apprehension of experience and, indeed, herself, is essentially protean and existential, it is difficult to find one overriding identity of the adult self controlling her narrative. For what connects the adult and the child is less a linear development towards one distinct version of the self through career or philosophy, than an ever-changing multiplicity of possibilities. It is, in fact, her mutability, born of and affirmed through repeated movement, re-orientation and assimilation, that becomes Angelou's unique identity, her "identity theme," to use Heinz Lichtenstein's more precise term. And if "work, in man, serves the maintenance of the individual's identity theme," as Lichtenstein asserts, then the numerous careers of the adult Angelou—as dancer, prostitute, S. C. L. C. organizer, actor, poet, journalist and director—document her restlessness and resilience.
The unsettled life Angelou writes of in I know Why the Caged Bird Sings suggests a sense of self as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications. Thus death (and to some extent its companion concept, rebirth) is the term by which her "identity theme" operates. It is the metaphor of self which most directly and comprehensively communicates Angelou's identity. Moreover, the compulsion to repeat—a necessary instrument for the maintenance of any "identity theme"—adds credence to the power of this major motif in Angelou's narrative. For, while the book's tone is predominantly witty, even light, resonating just below the surface of almost every page of Angelou's autobiography is the hidden, but everpresent, theme of death.
Angelou introduces I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with an anecdote. It is Easter Sunday at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Stamps. In celebration of the event, Momma has prepared a lavender taffeta dress for Maya. Believing it to be the most beautiful dress she has ever seen, Maya attributes to it magical properties: when worn, the dress will change Maya into the lovely, blond and blue-eyed "sweet little white girl" she actually believes herself to be.
But on Easter morning the dress reveals its depressing actuality: it is "a plain, ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway." No Cinderella metamorphosis for Maya; instead, she lives in a "black dream" from which there is no respite. Unlike Christ, whose resurrection from death the church is celebrating, Maya cannot be reborn into another life. Overcome with the impossibility of her white fantasy, she escapes the church "peeing and crying" her way home. Maya must, indeed, lose control of her body and feelings. "It would probably run right back up to my head," she believes, "and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place." By letting go of her fantasy—physically manifested by letting go of her bladder—Maya will not "die from a busted head."
But, to "let go," as Erik Erikson observes in Childhood and Society,"can turn into an inimical letting loose of destructive forces." For, on this Easter Sunday Maya Angelou comprehends the futility of her wish to become "one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world." "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl," the adult writer concludes, "being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." Although she acknowledges the "unnecessary insult" of her own white fantasy, Angelou nevertheless puts the rust on the razor by her awareness of its insidious and ubiquitous presence.
The form an autobiography takes is as revealing as its style and content. By placing this anecdote before the body of her narrative, Angelou asserts the paradigmatic importance of this particular event on her life. The atemporality of this experience (Maya's age remains unmentioned) coupled with the symbolic setting of Easter Sunday, suggests a personal myth deeply imbedded in Angelou's unconscious. One could, indeed, speculate that this event, introducing Maya Angelou's autobiography, is the "epiphanic moment" of her youth. For this short narrative presents the two dynamic operatives that circumscribe Angelou's self: her blackness and her outcast position.
Immediately striking in the anecdote is Maya's fantastic belief that "I was really white," that "a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty" had tricked Maya of her Caucasian birthright. The fairy tale imagery employed to depict her creation is characteristic of the imaginative and impressionable girl, but the meaning of her tale cannot be overlooked. For, according to her schema, Maya's identity hinges on the whims of this fairy stepmother. If benevolent, she will transform Maya back into a pretty white girl; if she remains cruel, her spell over Maya will rest unbroken. When her dress does not produce the longed-for results, Maya is forced to contend with her blackness. But if she acknowledges this blackness, Maya must also acknowledge the existence of an arbitrary and malevolent force beyond her control which dictates her personal and racial identity.
As if mourning the death of the lovely white body beyond her possession, Maya describes her dress as sounding "like crepe paper on the back of hearses." Maya's body indeed becomes a symbolic hearse, containing not only her dead dream, but also a life whose very existence is threatened by the whims of a murderous white culture.
Angelou's highly personal confession of racial self-hatred is, unfortunately, not unique in Afro-American experience. Many works of contemporary black novelists and autobiographers—from Ralph Ellison and Imamu Baraka/LeRoi Jones to Richard Wright and Malcolm X—assert that invisibility, violence, alienation and death are part and parcel of growing up black in a white America. Likewise, psychological and sociological studies affirm that the first lesson in living taught the black child is how to ensure his/her survival. "The child must know," write Grier and Cobbs, "that the white world is dangerous and that if he does not understand its rules it may kill him." It is, then, pitifully understandable for Maya to wish herself white, since blackness forebodes annihilation.
Of equal significance in this introductory anecdote is Maya's belief that a stepmother has put her under this spell and then abandoned her. Her image of herself, for at least the first five years of life, is that of an orphan. Even later, when forced to recognize the existence of both her parents, she still clings to this orphan identity. Although acknowledging that Bailey, by dint of beauty and personality, is his parents' true son, she describes herself as "an orphan that they had picked up to provide Bailey with company."
While her father is as culpable as her mother in Maya's abandonment, it is nevertheless her mother whom Maya most yearns for and consequently blames. No real mother would "laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children", Maya reflects bitterly when first confronted with her mother's existence. No proper mother should let her child so profoundly mourn her passing as Maya has done.
I could cry anytime I wanted by picturing my mother (I didn't know what she looked like) lying in her coffin. Her hair, which was black, was spread out on a tiny little pillow and her body was covered with a sheet. The face was brown, like a big O, and since I couldn't fill in the features I printed M O T H E R across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.
Maya's image of her dead mother is deeply comforting to the child. The protective and nurturing maternal love Maya yearns for is symbolically created through her own tears: they "would fall down my cheeks like warm milk." Consider then, the shock, the affront to her tottering self-image as well as to the image of her dead mother, when Maya receives her mother's first Christmas presents. Not only is her mother alive, but Maya herself must have been as good as dead during those early years of separation.
Adding insult to injury are the "awful presents" themselves: "a tea set—a teapot, four cups and saucers and tiny spoons—and a doll with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head." Symbols of a white world beyond Maya's reach or everyday experience, these toys not only evidence her mother's exotic and alien life, but also intimate questions of guilt and banishment no five-year-old can answer. The doll, especially, whose description so closely parallels Maya's own wished-for physical appearance, is an intolerable presence. It serves as an effigy of her mother by virtue of being female and her gift, as well as of Maya's impossible fantasy; Maya and Bailey "tore the stuffing out of the doll the day after Christmas."
Abandonment by a dead mother is forgivable, but abandonment by a living one evokes a rage so threatening that it must undergo massive repression. Thus, Maya becomes passive, inhibiting her deep anger and hostility. The fear of abandonment, even when living with her mother in St. Louis, never abates. "If we got on her nerves or if we were disobedient, she could always send us back to Stamps. The weight of appreciation and the threat, which was never spoken, of a return to Momma were burdens that clogged my childish wits into impassivity. I was called Old Lady and chided for moving and talking like winter's molasses." Maya's fears come true; after her rape she is again banished to Stamps.
Nevertheless, Maya repeatedly protests fondness for her mother. Beautiful, honest, gay and tough, Vivian Baxter leaves her daughter awestruck. "I could never put my finger on her realness," Angelou writes, "She was so pretty and so quick that … I thought she looked like the Virgin Mary." So much is Vivian Baxter idealized that Angelou capitalizes "Mother" in her narrative, while "father" remains in lowercase. But Vivian Baxter is diametrically opposite to the brown-faced nurturing mother Maya had mourned and yearned for in Stamps. Her beauty and animation keep Maya suspicious of their consanguinity.
Maya's ambivalence about her mother—her fear and love, her rage and need for her, her isolation and her desire for closeness—is never fully resolved. Although she insists verbally on this love, her affect reveals sullenness, resignation, depression and overwhelming passivity. Maya's aggression against her mother is well-defended, and thus specific suggestions of hostility towards her are rare. But the proliferating references to death in Angelou's autobiography provide another route for releasing Maya's (and Angelou's) repressed violent aggression.
This aspect of death's overdetermined significance is important but by no means the only level of reference; at least five sub-themes, each bearing on the major theme of death, emerge in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first is the most obvious: the realistic fear of whites which Momma and the Southern black community have drummed into Maya. Momma, Angelou writes, "didn't cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one's life." The white lynchers whom Uncle Willie hides from in the vegetable bin, the taunting "powhitetrash" girls, the bloated dead man fished out of the river—all are daily proof of a predatory white world. This fact leads Angelou to a bitter conclusion: "the Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose."
The daily fear of murder at the hands of whites leads the Southern black community into the haven of religion and the belief of a blessed reward in "the far off bye and bye." Thus, Southern black religion celebrates death, since life itself is too precarious to pin one's hopes on. Even at the revival meeting attended by members from a variety of Southern churches, death continually asserts its presence: the cardboard fans flourished by the worshippers advertise Texarkana's largest Negro funeral parlor. "People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction," comments Angelou, "considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all."
Balancing this image of a white world threatening her own and her people's lives, is Maya's revenge fantasy of murdering the offending whites. When Dentist Lincoln refuses to treat her toothache, Maya creates an elaborate revery wherein a Herculean Momma has the cowering dentist pleading for his life: "Yes, ma'am. Thank you for not killing me. Thank you, Mrs. Henderson."
Far and away the most dramatic instance of this revenge theme occurs the day of Maya's graduation from Lafayette County Training School. Unable to stand the invited white speaker's "dead words" which systematically destroy the dreams and aspirations of the black children and their elders Maya wills them all dead.
Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds and that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that Harriet Tubman had been killed by that blow on her head and Christopher Columbus had drowned in the Santa Maria.
It was awful to be 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. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.
Operating on a more personal level is the violence Maya witnesses within the members of her own family. Angelou introduces her Uncle Willie by describing his method of pushing her and Bailey onto the Store's red heater if they neglect their lessons. Momma, too, does not spare the rod when she believes her grandchildren remiss in hygiene, schooling, manners or piety. But this corporal punishment—executed more in love than in rage—is small matter, indeed, when compared to the fundamental brutality of Maya's maternal relations in St. Louis. Her maternal grandfather and uncles revel in their own "meanness": "They beat up whites and Blacks with the same abandon." Even her mother is not immune from her family's violent streak. Once, in retaliation for being cursed, Vivian Baxter, with the aid of her brothers, "crashed the man's head with a policemen's billy enough to leave him just this side of death." Later Vivian Baxter, again in response to an insult, shoots the partner of her gambling casino.
As the climax of this familial violence, Mr. Freeman's rape is performed under the threat of death: "If you scream, I'm gonna kill you. And if you tell, I'm gonna kill Bailey." But her family's response to Maya's subsequent withdrawal into silent passivity is itself another form of violence: "For a while I was punished for being so uppity that I wouldn't speak; and then came the thrashings, given by any relative who felt himself offended." The rape itself is the most flagrant example of her maternal family's characteristic combination of aggression and neglect. Not only is Mr. Freeman her mother's lover, but mother and children all live under his roof. Ruthless in her quest for material comfort, Vivian Baxter is not above taking full advantage of Freeman's obvious adoration. Already at eight a sagacious observer, Maya responds with mixed emotions to her mother's relationship with Freeman. "I felt sorry for Mr. Freeman. I felt as sorry for him as I had felt for a litter of helpless pigs born in our backyard sty in Arkansas. We fattened the pigs all year long for the slaughter on the first good frost, and even as I suffered for the cute little wiggly things, I knew how much I was going to enjoy the fresh sausage and hog's headcheese they could give me only with their deaths."
Of course, Maya's sympathy for Freeman has another cause: she feels as neglected by Vivian Baxter as he does. And while Freeman's motives in the earlier masturbatory episodes and even the rape itself probably stem as much from revenge against the mother as easy access to the daughter, Maya's own need for attention and physical closeness cannot be overlooked. After the first of these episodes, Angelou writes, "came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he'd never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last." Pitifully unable to distinguish lust from paternal love (never having experienced the latter), Maya projects onto Freeman this physical warmth missing from all her relationships with adults. "I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement of his big arms," Angelou recalls. "Before, my world had been Bailey, food, Momma, the Store, reading books and Uncle Willie. Now, for the first time, it included physical contact."
Freeman's subsequent murder (he was kicked to death by her uncles) evokes overwhelming guilt in Maya. At Freeman's trial Maya gives false testimony about their encounters, and now "a man was dead because I lied." Associating her spoken word with death, Maya stops talking.
Maya as bearer of death is the fourth dimension of death and violence in Angelou's narrative. In disgrace with God because "I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape," Maya conceives herself to be the cursed instrument of violent death. This conviction is part of the pattern of self-rejection and inferiority well-established within Maya's psyche; it lies but one small step beyond a personal sense of inherent gross repulsiveness. Introjecting this repulsiveness—which she believes everyone except Bailey feels towards her—Maya generalizes on her role in Freeman's death and perceives herself as death's tool. "The only thing I could do," she reasons, "was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I'd never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. 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."
In this psychic state Maya conceives of her own body mythically as a Pandora's Box containing a degeneracy so virulent that, if left uncontrolled, will contaminate the universe. So profound is her hatred and rage, she recalls, that "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." As a vessel containing a death-inducing fluid, Maya must control the physical force within her with all the strength and will she can muster. Thus, her resolve not to speak, and her consequent impassivity become outward manifestations of an inner struggle no less cosmic than Jacob and the Angel's. This same struggle is the one which opens Angelou's autobiography.
Upon her return to Stamps, Maya projects her own deathlike inertness on the whole town. It is described as "exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness.… Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened."
An outcast in a community of outcasts, Maya avoids emotional ties with others. In fact, for six years, until Louise befriends her, Maya is without an intimate friend her own age. It is not surprising, then, that when Mrs. Bertha Flowers takes an active interest in her, Maya describes her as "the lady who threw me my first life line." Nor is it surprising that Maya turns to the safety of books for the exciting relationships shunned in real life.
Yet, this pathological paralysis which inhibits Maya's ability to express her resentment and anger also opens the door to a gratification of her desire for a union with her mother. For Maya's passivity and obsession with death serve more than one unconscious need. While keeping her emotionally isolated from, and invulnerable to, others, they also gratify her regressive strivings for her mother.
Indeed, Maya's decision to lie at Freeman's trial was motivated not simply by mortal terror of her maternal clan and by fear of revealing her own complicity in the sexual episodes, but more importantly by her desire for her mother's warmth and approving love.
I couldn't say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close before he thought I had peed in my bed. My uncles would kill me and Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry. And all those people in the court would stone me as they had stoned the harlot in the Bible. And Mother, who thought I was such a good girl, would be so disappointed …
… I looked at his heavy face trying to look as if he would have liked me to say No. I said No.
The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn't get air.… Our lawyer brought me off the stand and to my mother's arms. The fact that I had arrived at my desired destination by lies made it less appealing to me.
When Maya's attempts at physical closeness with her mother—pathetically by way of Mr. Freeman's arms and her lie—prove unsuccessful, she reverts to the most primitive of all longings: to die. If death is "the condition in which identification with mother can be achieved," as Barchelon and Kovel postulate about Huckleberry Finn, then its "ultimate expression is passivity, of doing nothing." Thus, "in the unconscious, death can be represented as that dissolution of self necessary for reunion with the source of life, as a recapitulation of that self-less time in the womb." Consequently, for a major portion of her autobiography, Maya Angelou evokes the notion of her willful dissolution—still another dimension in her book of the death-motif.
Thanatos, or the unconscious drive toward dissolution and death, exists in Angelou's narrative before the crucial episode of her rape and courtroom lie. Indeed, it first emerges when Maya is confronted with recognizing the existence of her parents. Deeply attached to the image of her dead mother, her indecision about joining the living one in St. Louis evokes the thought of suicide. "Should I go with father? Should I throw myself into the pond, and not being able to swim, join the body of L. C., the boy who had drowned last summer?". Even her choice of method—death by water—calls up her yearning for a return to the source of all life, the mother.
Although her second residence in Stamps includes episodes wherein Maya considers her own death, these are generally handled more with humor than pathos. At any rate, the very abundance of references to her own extinction, regardless of Angelou's tone, is evidence of this theme's powerful hold over both the actor's and the author's unconscious. Three examples out of many will suffice. When cautioned by Mrs. Flowers to handle her books well, Maya can only imagine the most extreme punishment if she proves negligent: "Death would be too kind and brief." Later, having survived to see the day of her graduation, Angelou relates that "somewhere in my fatalism I had expected to die, accidentally, and never have the chance to walk up the stairs in the auditorium and gracefully receive my hard-earned diploma. Out of God's merciful bosom I had won reprieve." Again, referring to the overwhelming sway books had over hers and Bailey's imaginations, Angelou writes that "ever since we read The Fall of the House of Usher, we had made a pact that neither of us would allow the other to be buried without making 'absolutely, positively sure' (his favorite phrase) that the person was dead."
Included in this part of her experience is Angelou's first conscious cognizance of her own mortality. So crucial an aspect of her identity is this awareness, that Angelou devotes an entire chapter to it. Beneath the mock-Gothic melodrama of Mrs. Taylor's funeral and her posthumous nocturnal returns to visit her husband (neither of whom are mentioned again in the book), exists Maya's real and growing apprehension of her own mortal state: "I had never considered before that dying, death, dead, passed away, were words and phrases that might be even faintly connected with me."
This deathward drift is arrested and altered when Maya moves to California. Just as Stamps reflects Maya's impassivity, so does San Francisco evoke her resiliency; while Stamps projects the worst side of Maya, so San Francisco affirms the best: "The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness." In San Francisco Maya's own identity happily merges with her environs. "In San Francisco, for the first time, I perceived myself as part of something," writes Angelou. "I identified … with the times and the city.… The under-tone of fear that San Francisco would be bombed which was abetted by weekly air raid warnings, and civil defense drills in school, heightened my sense of belonging. Hadn't I, always, but ever and ever, thought that life was just one great risk for the living?".
Death in its many manifestations is, indeed, pivotal to Maya Angelou's sense of self. But the life instinct, Eros, co-exists with Thanatos in her autobiography, as it does in life. In fact, the tension between Maya's quest for a positive, life-affirming identity and her obsession with annihilation provide the unconscious dynamism affecting all aspects of her narrative, and endowing it with power and conviction. Thus, the ultimate challenge to death is Maya's own active assertion of self and her willingness to face annihilation and overcome it. The remainder of Angelou's autobiography addresses itself to this end.
It is not until she visits Mexico with her father that Maya tenaciously struggles for her life. Leaving Maya to her own wits in a Mexican cantina, Bailey Johnson, Sr., takes off with his Mexican lover. When he finally returns, intoxicated beyond help, Maya must drive them both home. Although she has never driven, Maya defies and masters the bucking Hudson.
The Hudson went crazy on the hill. It was rebelling and would have leaped over the side of the mountain, to all our destruction, in its attempt to unseat me had I relaxed control for a single second. The challenge was exhilarating. It was me, Marguerite, against the elemental opposition. As I twisted the steering wheel and forced the accelerator to the floor I was controlling Mexico, and might and aloneness and inexperienced youth and Bailey Johnson, Sr., and death and insecurity, and even gravity.
But, as in the incident of Freeman's rape, the fatal pattern of reversal again appears. Maya's temporary safety is followed by Dolores's stabbing. When, in order to save face, Johnson hides Maya at a friend's home rather than bring her to a hospital, Maya is again confronted with the specter of her own death. She survives the night, however, sleeping "as if my death wish had come true." But morning presents the inevitable questions: "What would I do? Did I have the nerve to commit suicide? If I jumped in the ocean wouldn't I come up all bloated like the man Bailey saw in Stamps?". Although she has evoked her childish alternative of death by water and its unconscious wish for a return to mother, this time Maya resolves to make it on her own.
The decision not to retreat to her mother's home becomes the turning-point in Maya Angelou's autobiography. "I could never succeed in shielding the gash in my side from her," she argues. "And if I failed to hide the wound we were certain to experience another scene of violence. I thought of poor Mr. Freeman, and the guilt which lined my heart, even after all those years, was a nagging passenger in my mind." With this gesture, Maya not only triumphs over her regressive longing for death and mother, but also, by sparing her father and Dolores, overcomes her sense of herself as death's tool.
Employing the same simile she had earlier used to describe her mother—"She was like a pretty kite that floated just above my head"—Maya now describes herself as "a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for anchor." Put more plainly, Maya rises in her own estimation, incorporates the best of her mother and becomes her own guardian. It is only then that Maya is ready to return to the human fold.
The outcast children of the dead-car junkyard where she seeks refuge eliminate Maya's "familiar insecurity," especially in relation to her mother. She learns "to drive … to curse and to dance", with the best of them. But of signal importance is that these children disprove the racial prejudice—and its concurrent death fantasies—of her earlier experiences.
After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outisde the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life.
That Angelou concludes her autobiography with the birth of her son is final evidence of the substantive power of death as metaphor of self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her body, which she had earlier described as not only ugly and awkward but also contaminated with a death-inducing power, brings forth a living child. But the vestiges of her former self-image are not so easily excised. When her mother brings to Maya's bed her three-week-old baby, Maya is terror-stricken: "I was sure to roll over and crush out his life or break those fragile bones." But later, when her mother wakens her, the apprehensive Maya discovers her son safe: "Under the tent of blanket, which was poled by my elbow and forearm, the baby slept touching my side."
This final picture of Vivian Baxter as a confident and compassionate mother lovingly bent over her daughter's bed, evokes the brown, nurturing figure of Maya's childhood fantasy. By asserting her faith in Maya's instinctive, preserving motherhood, Vivian Baxter not only qualifies the book's implicit image of her as cruel stepmother, but also consummates Maya's growing sense of herself as an adult, life-giving woman.
When writing one's autobiography one's primary concern is the illumination of personal and historical identity while giving shape and meaning to the experiences out of which that identity has developed. Through the abyss of social and emotional death, Angelou emerges as a tenacious and vital individual. Indeed, in keeping with her death-and-rebirth fantasy, Maya Angelou is reborn: once, into a life-affirming identity recorded within the pages of her narrative, and again, when she recreates that life as author of her autobiography. If one must enter a dark night of the soul in order to emerge radiant, then Maya Angelou's "terrible beauty" shines clear to the sky.
Liliane K. Arensberg, "Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, December 1976, pp. 273-291.
Bertolino, James, "Maya Angelou Is Three Writers: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by N. J. Karolides, L. Burgess, and J. M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 299-305.
Froula, Christine, "The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History," in Signs, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 621-44, 1986.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman's Life, Ballantine Books, 1988.
Henke, Suzette A., "Women's Life-Writing and the Minority Voice: Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Alice Walker," in Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 210-233.
Kent, George, "Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition," in African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1993, pp. 162-170.
Lionnet, Francoise, "Con Artists and Storytellers: Maya Angelou's Problematic Sense of Audience," in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, pp. 111-40, 1998.
McMurry, Myra K., "Role-Playing As Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird," in South Atlantic Bulletin, No. 2, May 1976, pp. 106-111.
Moore, Opal, "Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 306-316.
Smith, Sidonie Ann, "The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance," in Southern Humanities Review, Fall 1973, pp. 365-375.
Walker, Pierre A., "Racial Protest, Identity, Words, and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in College Literature, Vol. 222, October 1995, pp. 91-108.
Bertolino, James, "Maya Angelou Is Three Writers: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by N. J. Karolides, L. Burgess, and J. M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 299-305.
Bertolino views Angelou as a gifted shaper of words and literary devices, an intensely honest person, and an important social commentator.
Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed., Conversations with Maya Angelou, University of Mississippi Press, 1989.
Elliot presents an insightful collection of reprinted interviews with Angelou.
Estes-Hicks, Onita, "The Way We Were: Precious Memories of the Black Segregated South," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 9-18.
Estes-Hicks places Angelou's autobiography within the tradition of black southern autobiographies by comparing and contrasting with other writers.
Lupton, Mary Jane, "Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 257-276.
Lupton discusses the unifying theme of motherhood in Angelou's autobiographies.
Neubauer, Carol E., "Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by T. Bond Inge, University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 114-142.
Neubauer summarizes Angelou's career and discusses recurring themes in her poetry, including "Caged Bird."
O'Neale, Sondra, "Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by M. Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 25-37.
O'Neale discusses Angelou's racial identification and how she subverts stereotypical ideas of the black woman.
Vermillion, Mary, "Reembodying the Self: Representations of Rape in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Biography, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 243-260.
Vermillion gives a sensitive and perceptive discussion of the rape and its connection to a larger theme of oppression in the autobiography.
Walker, Pierre A., "Racial Protest, Identity, Words, and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in College Literature, Vol. 222, October 1995, pp. 91-108.
Walker focuses on the literary qualities to assert that the autobiography traces the steps of the author's political self from racial helplessness to active protest.