I know why the caged birds sing by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is one of the greatest African American writers of all time. Her works approach issues from a personal perspective making it easy for the audience to relate with what she writes about. The issues tackled in her books are a reflection of the societal problems that different people have to endure in everyday life. I know why the caged bird sings is one of her most popular books as represents the life of African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Angelou tackles issues that were of normal occurrence in the society. She does this in a direct yet interesting manner making the book as fascinating as it is educative. This is the reason why I chose this book for this paper.
The process of selecting a book for this paper was long and tiring as there are many readings in this course. However, among all the books that we have read, this book presented a different form of writing making it a unique choice. The author chooses a different approach as opposed to what is considered norm in literary writing. The book is an autobiography of Angelou’s life as a young African American girl but the author uses an almost fictitious style. The book incorporates writing methods such as dialogue, use of different characters and motif recurrence, which are all used in fictitious writing (Robinson 55). In the writing of autobiographies, authors are expected to write about their personal experiences as opposed to writing narratives that tackle societal issues. Angelou goes against the norm and recreates her life from the age of three to seventeen. She uses different characters to expand the various themes that are present in the book. The choice of language also differs from what writers may refer to as autobiographical language. The most interesting part is that the book still gives the Angelou’s story while exploring different issues. This novel offers a different experience as opposed to what other writers had to offer making it a good choice for this paper.
In this book, Maya Angelou presents several ideas, which are dealt with as the main themes in the story. As noted earlier, the book retains its autobiographical style while tackling different issues. One of the recurrent ideas presented in this book is racism as it occurred in the years being followed in the book. This book presents a form of racism whereby the society was not restrictive on how the African Americans were treated by whites. In fact, Angelou successfully creates an image of a society that was open and accepting to racism. The main character in this book is Marguerite often called Maya as she moves from early childhood to young adulthood. The idea of racism in this society is brought out through her experiences as she grows up. It is from her perspective that the reader is able to understand the extent of racism in this society. The first instance of how racism affects this society is seen in the preface of this book and how Maya views herself. While in the church, she is embarrassed and urinates on herself in front of others. In her perspective, Maya is in a “black ugly dream” and hopes to wake up and find that she is white (Angelou 342). She admires the little white girls and thinks that she too should have been born white. This is because of the kind of teasing that she experiences from the white children who view the African Americans as inferior to them. By giving this as an introduction, the author gives the reader an opportunity to see the kind of society that Maya lives in. It also gives a peek at the extent of racism and discrimination in this society.
Maya’s experiences of racism begin at a very young age and as she grows up, it becomes more intense. One of Maya’s most conspicuous experience with racism is on her eight-grade graduation where one of the white speakers publicly declares that African Americans are only suited for second class professions. The speaker acknowledges that it is possible for African Americans to learn but employment opportunities for them only lie in sports or being servants for their white counterparts (Angelou 356). This is an appalling form of racism, which appears to be a public form of discrimination against the African Americans. Secondly, on her first job, her employer, a white woman, decides to call her Mary instead of Maya to suit her white tastes. Maya is utterly disappointed by the woman’s character and opts to break her dishware as a form of revenge. On another occasion, Maya and her grandmother go to the only dentist in their town, in search for medical assistance for Maya’s tooth. Maya is shocked when the white man refuses to treat saying it was better to treat a dog as compared to her (Angelou 367). Maya’s experiences give a clear picture of how racism affected the people in this society. Additionally, Bailey also experiences and incidence of extreme racism when a white man appears happy on seeing a dead black man.
This book also presents forms of how African Americans fought racism in this society. This includes simple to extreme actions for people to resist racism. For example, Maya’s grandmother, Momma, considers issues realistically and forges the way forward. She teaches Maya to be patient and calm even in the wake of blatant racism (Bloom 118). Momma teaches Maya how to retain her dignity when dealing with issues related to racism and discrimination of any kind. However, other people do not take racism as calmly as Momma does. Vivian, Maya’s mother, joins illegal movements, which ensure her family’s safety and fair treatment. Additionally, African Americans view the church as an avenue for relieving their frustration with racism. While in church, they are able to condemn the acts of the White people and expect their revenge when the whites go to hell (Bloom 119). In summary, racism is one of the most dominant ideas that Angelou tackles in this book. She also shows African Americans how to react and deal with racism effectively.
Another of the author’s main idea is the identity crisis that faced many African Americans in this society. The author goes into specific detail of how African Americans in this period were in a constant search of identity (Robinson 43). The main reason was that they wanted to fit in and be a part of a community that accepted and appreciated them. Maya is faced with identity crisis from a very tender age. She feels that as a black girl, she cannot achieve what she white girls can achieve. This leads to her imagining that she is in a bad dream and one day she will wake up as a white girl.
The issue of moving from one home to another also expounds on the identity crisis that Maya faces. In the beginning, Maya and her brother Bailey are faced with a dilemma when their parents divorce and they have to go live with their grandmother and Uncle. Maya does not enjoy this experience, as they have to travel all alone receiving no respect from other passengers who see them as inconveniencing. After some years, Maya’s father takes them to live with Vivian, their mother. Their stay here is intolerable and one of her mother’ boyfriends sexually abuses Maya. Later, they return to their grandmother’s home which is a relief for Maya. Their grandmother is concerned about their security and sends them back to their mother who moves from Los Angeles to Oakland. The movements drive Maya into an identity crisis becoming very silent at one point. Some form of success in identity search is seen when she becomes the first African American streetcar conductor (Angelou 385). Additionally, the book ends with her accepting her role as a mother in the African American community. The identity crisis is also present in Vivian who despite of having a nursing degree continues to earn her living through gambling. Throughout their lives, the people close to Maya admire the whites and wish they could be like them. However, the book shows that African Americans will only find their identity when they accept whom they are as seen in Maya’s case.
In relation to the above, the author also presents the idea of African American women as strong and ready to fight all the challenges that come their way. In fact, Maya’s growth from childhood to adulthood is symbolic for her growth from a young, naïve girl to a strong and knowledgeable woman (Bloom 121). Although in different ways, the African American women in this book are able to counter the challenges of adulthood in this society. Momma, Maya’s grandmother is one of the strong women in Maya’s life. She is ready to take care of Maya and Bailey even after their parents abandon them. Despite her age, she is a successful businessperson, owning the only store in their community. She is a respectable woman and other African Americans recognize this. Additionally, her personality as a calm and patient woman enhances Maya’s respect for her. Vivian Baxter, Maya’s mother has a different character as compared to that of Momma but she still manages to retain her strong will when faced with challenges. When Maya and Bailey come to live with her, she openly shows her affection and treats them well. Although they are hostile and resistance to her care, she continues to care for them as a mother. When her boyfriend rapes Maya, she is deeply sad and throws him out of her house (Robinson 45). Additionally, she offers Maya relentless support on discovering that she is pregnant. Vivian is a hard worker and this is seen in her financial independence. Another strong African American woman seen in this book is Mrs. Bertha Flowers who comes in to help Maya with her post-rape trauma problems. As a woman, she understands Maya’s problems becoming her comforter. She is learned and helps Maya appreciate literature and subsequently using it to voice her problems. She is credited with helping Maya speak again thus helping improve the relationship with her family.
Other ideas that are presented in this book include the issue of rape and the importance of language and literature in the society. Firstly, the author describes the rape incident so vividly that it recaptures the reader’s attention (Bloom 91). A person is able to see the adverse effects of rape on a woman from what Maya goes through after this incidence. She goes silent for almost five years ruining her relationship with her family. The trauma makes it impossible for her to communicate. Nonetheless, the author brings in the idea of how written literature can be used to counter trauma. Through the help of Mrs. Bertha, Maya rediscovers her ability to speak by reading literary works by different authors including Shakespeare (Bloom 26). It is through this experience that the author suggests the use of language as a method of therapy. Literary works help Maya regain her confidence thus accepting herself and eventually success as a mother.
Another great American author is Mark Twain. His works are recognized worldwide for their wit, humor and criticism of different societal issues. Corn-Porn Opinions is one of his popular essays, which was only published after his death. The essay begins by talking about how a young boy used to listen to his friend giving fake sermons (Twain 1). He imitated the real clergy and addressed issues related to the society. The major issue that is discussed in this essay is public opinions. The author first begins by noting that human beings are dependent on one another making it impossible to come up with an opinion that is free of outside influence. The essay further notes that, people are in a constant search for self-approval and form opinions that are relevant to their growth socially. Subsequently, people also have the desire to be approved by others in the society and be recognized as part of the community. This is what leads to the adoption and spread of trends. The essay gives an example of how a fashion trend begins with one person and spreads to other people (Twain 3). Due to the desire to confirm, people imitate others and thus the spread of a trend. Additionally, the trend goes out of fashion when one person refuses to wear it and others follow her lead. This circulation of ideas follows people even into the political arena whereby people associate with those who appreciate and recognize their efforts. Additionally, the essay notes that people follow trends unknowingly as it is an inborn perception for every human being. The rise of the corn pone or the public opinion is gradual just like a fashion trend, with people only responding to what others are doing and not taking time to make important considerations.
The connection between I know why the caged bird sings and Corn-Porn Opinions is the concept of conforming, which affects all societies. Angelou discusses this from Maya’s experience as a young African American girl. She has a low opinion of herself, as this is what the society tells her to do. From birth, the girl knows that whites are superior and more beautiful than African Americans. In Mark Twain’s view, such an opinion highly influence what others say and thus Maya responds to this by wanting to be white (Twain 2). She thinks that being black is a nightmare and she thinks that she will be white one day. Then, people will stop teasing her and she will become popular. The need to belong to a society, which recognizes and appreciates, is natural and when people do not appreciate you, a person will move to a more appreciative side. This can be seen from the identity crisis that faces the African Americans in Angelou’s book. They continue to search for acceptance from other people, while they do not accept themselves. Subsequently, other people fail to recognize their efforts and they end up frustrated. This is true as seen in Mark Twain’s concept that self-approval emanates from approval from others (Twain 4). Consequently, when they accept themselves as they are, other people also start to appreciate them creating unity between self-approval and approval from others. The two authors use different styles but present a similar idea on how people form opinions and adapt them to fit their needs.
The contemporary society that we live in presents different issues as compared to those that affected the people in I know why the caged bird sings. However, this book could still be relevant as issues as racism and discrimination continue to affect the society. However, it would be imperative to change the focus from a purely African American audience to a more diverse audience. Although African Americans face discrimination more widely, people from other ethnic backgrounds also face similar problems. By focusing on a wider audience, the book would achieve wider acceptance among the American people. Nonetheless, even if the author were to write it in the modern society, the autobiographical content must remain. This would ensure that people validate the information given as true and acceptable in the modern world of writing. Additionally, the author would have to tackle the issue of early motherhood more deeply as teenage pregnancies have increased sharply in the recent past. By talking about how to deal with external pressure on teenagers, the book would be more acceptable for mothers and child rights activists.
In the contemporary society, issues related to rape and other forms of sexual harassment raise numerous debates among people. The way in which the author tackles the issue of Maya’s rape would be reasonably accepted by the society. However, it would be imperative for the author to give more details about how to deal with post-rape trauma especially for young girls. As this book addresses issues that directly affect people, the author would also be required to give details of how the characters deal with problems like family relationships. Additionally, the issue of gender discrimination would also have to be tackled from a different angle as women have made enormous steps in fighting for their rights. This would ensure that the book does not undermine the role that women play in the contemporary society. Additionally, it would be imperative for the writer to use technological innovations in compilation and presentation of ideas in this novel.
In conclusion, Maya Angelou has successfully captured the issues that affected the black community in the early twentieth century. Racism, gender discrimination, identity crisis, and rape are some of the challenges that are discussed in this book. Additionally, the author also identifies positive concepts like resistance to racism, language and literature and feminine success in this society. In conclusion, Maya Angelou has a unique writing style, which is used to deliver efficiently the message of this book.
Angelou, Maya. “I know why the caged bird sings.” The Best American Essays of the century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York, NY: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. Print.
Robinson, Mary. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Notes. Cliffs Notes. New York, NY: Hungry Minds, 1992. Print.
Twain, Mark. “Corn-pone Opinions.” The Best American Essays of the century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.