I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou begins when Maya’s parents divorce when she is extremely young. Deserting their responsibility to raise their own children, her estranged parents decide to send their son and daughter to live with their grandmother, Annie, in Arkansas. Annie, aka “Momma” lives in Arkansa, one of the most racists states in the already hostile South and runs a general store. Annie accepts the racism and takes the daily ridicule in stride, this angers Maya. Maya spends her childhood feeling ugly compared to the white ideal she is presented with. However, she feels at home with her grandmother and basically forgets her parents until her dad takes her to live with her mother in Missouri. Her mother has a glamorous looking there in the city, Maya is raped by her mom’s boyfriend, who says he will kill Bailey if Maya reveals what he did to her. After the rape is discovered, Freeman, the boyfriend, is tried in court and killed by what Maya believes to be her family. Blaming herself, she stops speaking to anyone except her brother. Her family is quickly angered by this and once again avoiding responsibility, her mother sends them back to live with her grandmother. There, Maya learns to speak again using books and poetry with a kind woman, Mrs. Flowers. In spite of that, the racism in Arkansas is really intense. During her middle school graduation, after a speech with racist undertones, one boy sings “The Black National Anthem, and Maya finally feels proud to be her racist. But this story is still in mid 20th century Arkansas, so Bailey sees a white man smiling at a black man’s corpse and he just can’t understand the intense hatred white’s feel for their race. Unlike their grandmother they can’t accept nor understand the South’s racism, so they go back to their mother, who lives in California. She is happy in San Francisco, but there’s still racism there. Her mother has a new boyfriend, Clidell, who she likes. Maya visits her father, who is disappoints her by getting blackout drunk and basically abandoning her in Mexico. After their trip, Maya gets in a physical fight with his girlfriend which gets so intense Maya has to run away to keep herself safe. She lives with street teens for a month, then comes back to her mom. She becomes a streetcar conductor at 15. Then gets pregnant, after an awkward sexual encounter, and hides it from her mom. At the end of the autobiography, she finally feels comfortable with herself and her new place in the world as mother.
Through the graduation speech Maya is reminded that black people “were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher…was farcical and presumptuous”(105).
Much more important than the outward racism, internalized racism kept black people, like Maya oppressed. At this point in the novel, Maya has little faith in herself and her race. The whites keep the black people oppressed not only by societal inequality, but also but forcing them to think they cannot be anything more than what society deems possible. Maya’s growth starts when she recognizes the capability of black people to excel despite their starting disadvantage. Maya muses that “It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life…The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase ” (301) . Maya’s life in this story is marked by a lack of agency. She is restricted by her gender race, and class in society. When we think of oppression, we often envision the beating of slaves, the rape of women, and the destitution of the poor. However, we rarely think of the overarching theme of all these issues, lack of control. Oppression is about power and as a black woman, Maya has absolutely none. She feels strong resentment at this unfair societal structure that places “negroes at the bottom and feels a warranted resentment towards whites, french in this example. Since she cannot find outside validation, this autobiography is about her finding her power internally and taking control of her own life, despite society’s definitions of her. While in high school Maya recognizes that she “knew very little, but was certain that the things had yet to learn wouldn’t be taught to at George Washington High School. ” (207).In this quote, Maya is rejecting the teachings of society. She is expanding her mind to realise that her knowledge cannot come from a school that teaches from a society that hates her, she again must realize that she must go her own way and find the knowledge she seeks from herself. She is rejecting society and its conventions.
Maya Angelou’s story is important to tell as it is an example of how one can rise above societal oppression. She grew up with every advantage one can imagine in her time, and was also faced with a incredibly disappointing family life. Despite all of this, she learns to love herself as a black woman and give up all the self hate and need for approval by a racist society. At the beginning of the story, Maya sees herself as ugly; by the end she sees herself as beautiful not by societal standards but by her own. In the title, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the titular bird is not kept in simply by outward factors, but also by its mind. By the end, Maya is no longer trapped but freed. She is not freed by social change or even by the greater movement of black activism, but by herself.
- Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009. Print.