Published in 1969, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is Maya Angelou’s captivating and remarkably beautiful autobiographical novel. She was an artist, a poet, a writer, a composer and an activist among other roles which she defined very well throughout her career.
The book is a coming-of-age work which narrates the life of Marguerite (also called ‘My’ or ‘Maya’ by her brother, Bailey) from the tender age of three to the late teens and the struggles Maya and Bailey had to face. The young children were labelled like baggage and sent away to their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. It was in the South United States that Maya witnessed racism and prejudice all around. There are numerous incidents in the book in which Maya faced difficulties while growing up as a black girl in the South, yet triumphed despite persistent institutionalised discrimination.
Even though her grandmother owned a decent store in the Stamps, they were relentlessly harassed by the white children of their town.
Early in the book, Maya describes the rigidly segregated social setup of Stamps, with its “whitefolksville” and the “powhitetrash”. She writes, “In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.”
Maya narrates the harrowing experiences that she encounters in her childhood which stem from the overt racism of her white neighbours. She describes the drudgery of cotton pickers’ lives where in the dying sunlight the people dragged, rather than their empty cotton sacks. Even though her grandmother owned a decent store in the Stamps, they were relentlessly harassed by the white children of their town. In one incident, her Uncle Willie had to be hidden to prevent him from being lynched by members of theKu Klux Klan. Apart from these, she points out another outrageous example where according to the people in Stamps, the whites in their town were so prejudiced that they did not allow a Negro to buy a vanilla ice cream, except on July Fourth.
The revolting memory of her grandmother’s constant humiliation by coarse, insolent white girls is described in the book without any exaggeration. During one such instance, she writes, “The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve”. With the essence and purity of childhood, Maya shapes concentric hearts in the dust and pierces them with a love arrow, symbolic of her bond with the strongest female figure she had known. The above description strengthens her feminist stance and reveals the depth of love she had for the women in her life.
Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya and her brother are witnessed reading voraciously. It is their interaction with literature that paved way for their empowerment. Maya describes reading Kipling, Poe, Butler while saving her loyalty and passion for Langston Hughes, Dunbar and others. But it was Shakespeare, her ‘first white love’, that appealed to her the most at that time. Angelou also makes note of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a lady who not only acted as a mentor but also encouraged her to voice her opinion. She handed Maya a book of poems and asked her to recite them during her visits. Maya recalls the tears of selflessness that filled her eyes at her accomplishments and it was in that moment that she felt recognised as Marguerite Johnson .
As a product of the fundamentalist South, Maya learned from the Bible, strictly interpreted by her grandmother and Uncle Willie. Maya not only internalised religious scriptures but also wisely avoided concepts that strain her young mind. However, despite her fundamentalist upbringing, the Church failed to draw her out of the trauma that she suffered as a consequence of a dreadful incident.
Her work addressed the effects of emotional, sexual, and intellectual development and the complexity of familial relationships.
One of the most important reasons behind the significance of this work was Maya’s harrowing testimony of her sexual abuse and rape at the age of seven by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Being unaccustomed to having a father around, the naive Maya fantasised Mr. Freeman to be her real parent. Later from an adult perspective, Angelou concluded, “It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine.”
Even though Angelou testified at the man’s trial, he was released. He was kicked to death outside the courthouse. This incident left a deep impact on Angelou who stopped speaking for five years, believing that her voice was a “killing machine”. She wrote, “I read more than ever, and wished my soul that I had been born a boy.” Maya used rape as a metaphor to describe the sufferings of the Black and especially the lack of power and control over one’s body. During one of the court proceedings, Maya described her fear of being stoned like the harlot in the Bible if she spoke the truth. She could only think of her brother and the fear of disappointing him.
Angelou has poignantly woven her story of oppression where she is caught in the crossfires of white supremacy and male prejudice. Maya has referred to the racial barrier as one of the ‘cages’ which she felt throughout her time spent in the segregated community. Another cage that she felt trapped by was that of being a woman which put her in a more vulnerable position. She recounts her feelings of being challenged racially while growing up and being restrained by certain cultural and gender based biases.
In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya evolves from being a subject of oppression to a self-conscious individual with a firm belief in her identity. Her work has addressed the effects of emotional, sexual, and intellectual development and the complexity of familial relationships. Thus even when she distances herself from her relatives she never strays too far from her brother, Bailey, the fulcrum of her scattered family ,whom she lovingly refers to as “my kingdom come.” Angelou’s story gives voice to human concerns across all realms of physicality and emotionality making it a remarkable and unforgettable portrayal of a young woman’s search for truth and most importantly speaking truth to power!
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