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“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is an autobiography written by Maya Angelou. She describes about her hard life “caged” growing up as a black girl from the South. Maya Angelou starts the novel about her life in the age of three with her four-year-old brother Bailey. They are turned over the care of their paternal grandmother in Stamps. She describes how the two children were sent away after they parents’ divorce, traveling by train across the Southwestern and cling to their tag “To whom It May Concern”, c/o Mrs Henderson. Both kids are looking this like rejection and loss of self-worth. “I’m being sent away because I’m no lovable”. Angelou generalizes the children situations as follows: “Years later I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or black to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.” (Caged Bird, 4). Smith states that Maya opens with a primal childhood scene that brings into focus the nature of the imprisoning environment from which the self will seek escape. The black girl child is trapped within the cage of her own diminished self-image around which interlock the bars of natural and social forces. (Interpretation, 6)
Her grandmother’s store is the center of life in the Negro community of the town, being the pick-up and drop-off point for cotton pickers in picking season. Her grandmother Henderson is presented not only as the main role in center of her family, but as the leader of the black community in Stamps, strong and religious. McMurry argues that from Maya’s eyes the customers in her grandmother’s store were trapped in cotton fields, no amount of hope and work to get them out. Her uncle Willie is caged “must have been tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame”. Her grandmother rises each morning with consciousness of a caged animal (Interpretation, 27).
Maya and her brother Baily were very close during their childhood and most of their adolescence. Maya in her story writes, “During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love” (Caged Bird, 11). Maya writes that “But it was Shakespeare who said, `When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long that it couldn’t matter to anyone any more”. She also enjoys the works of many prominent black authors, which her Momma, or grandmother, approves more of. Although young Maya likes Shakespeare, and is fine with the fact that he is white, her Momma wouldn’t want to know that Maya enjoys a white man’s work. Maya feels that she again is “caged” and can’t express her thoughts and feeling about Shakespeare with grandmother.
Angelou recalls how Momma used to make them bathe and wash constantly, even in cold water in wintertime. She used to insist on them being respectful and clean, which most people were, except for the “powhitetrash” children that came into the town. Those that came to the store were often very rude, but young Maya and her family are not allowed to say anything, because they are black. Angelou describes her Momma; she is tall, big, and strong, and leads in the hymns at church every Sunday. She is old-fashioned, though, as she teaches the children to behave as she was to behave as a child, and teaches them to act according to outdated racial codes of behavior. Carol Neubauer comments in Angelou’s relationship with her grandmother states that “Momma becomes a sort of superwoman of enormous proportions with ten feet tall with eight-foot arms” and comes to the helpless child’s rescue. In this alternate vision, Angelou switches to fantasy to suggest the depth of the child’s humiliation and the residue of pain even after her two bad teeth have been pulled. Fantasy, finally, is used to demonstrate the undiminÂÂished strength of the character of Momma.
The recession hit the community and the big difference between the white and black communities of Stamps is noted; white people have plenty of clothes and can afford to be charitable and spend too much, and still they have enough for themselves. In the black community, people can hardly afford to give anything away, so when they do, it is much appreciated. Even though Momma has land and money, even she doesn’t spend money like the white people do, budgeting carefully and never wasting anything. Even Momma makes all of the clothes for herself and the children, and only buys Uncle Willie expensive, ready-made clothes and shoes. The depression hits Stamps, and leads to wages being cut and difficulty making ends meet. That also means that they can’t afford to shop at the store, and Momma has to figure out how to keep the store running and still make money. She allows the townspeople to trade the relief food that they get for credit at the store, and is able to keep things going there. The entire “black community of Stamps” Smith argues, itself “caged” in the social reality of racial subordination and impotence (Modern Critics, 133)
Christmas comes, and Maya and Bailey get presents from their parents, who they hadn’t heard of since they were shipped off to Stamps. Maya and Bailey’s father comes to Stamps the next year, to see his children; neither of them were warned that he was coming, and it is hard for them to face their father in the flesh and give up the fantasies they had about their absent father. He is tall and handsome, and more proper and wealthy than the people in Stamps. Maya is happy that he is there, but then thinks that if people see her and her father together, their dissimilarity in looks will make people think she is not his daughter. When they finally do meet their mother, she is very beautiful and charming, and Maya and Bailey are no longer nervous or sad at being taken away from Stamps. Saint Louis is the important turning point in Maya’s life. She received the mother’s love and care that she missed all the years in Stamps. Maya doesn’t have friends and only Bailey is the only one she can share her secret.
Maya writes “Saint Louis was a foreign country. In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis a few weeks” and “I carried the same shield that I used in Stamps: “I didn’t come to stay.” (Caged Bird, 58). In Saint Louis, mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Friedman raped Maya at age of eight and she hospitalized. Maya describes that she looked at Mr. Freeman as a “father figure”. He was the only real man that was a part of her life. Being at a young age she thought that Mr. Freeman just loved and cared for her, just like any little girl would. But it went farther Mr. Freeman eventually forces her to have sex, and threatens her not to tell anybody. Ultimately, Maya was convinced that by her telling everyone about Mr. Freeman raping her, however condemning him and lying about the other times he molested her, she caused his death. Thinking that now every time she lies, someone will die, Maya decides to shield others by not speaking to anyone except Bailey. “I had discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I heard all the sounds the world would be quiet around me” (Caged Bird , 87). The lack of sound in Maya’s life due to the rape and lies she said under oath had become the most important thing to her. Her life now became the sound of everyone else, burying the sound she believes can kill; her own voice. Maya’s writing is simple and she is very honest. Bertolino states that Angelou’s description of her molestation and rape is probably the most valuable part of her remarkable book. Angelou tells the story honestly, without sensationalism, yet with enough palpable detail and enough insight so we, the readers, might to understand. (Bloom’s Note, 56)
After these difficulties, Maya and her brother went at Stamps. Smith argues that Maya’s psychological and emotional devastation find a mirror in Stamps’ social devastation. Stamps gives her back the familiarity and security of well-known cage. She climbs back in happily, losing herself in her silent world, surrendering herself to her own worthlessness. (Modern Critical Views, 9). Mrs Bertha Flowers played an important role in her life. Mrs. Flowers allowed Maya to come out of her depression and learned about many different things. Mrs. Flower helped Maya to come out of depression, she says to her “Now no one is going to make you talk-possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is a man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animal” (Caged Bird, #). Mrs. Flowers, also introduces Maya to reading books, she learns that she must be biased of ignorance, but understanding of the illiteracy, and also Mrs. Flowers offered her to cookies and tea. Smith argues Mrs Flower opens the door to the caged bird’s silence with the key of acceptance. For the first time Maya is accepted as an individual rather than as a relation to someone else: “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Anderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but just being Marguerite Johnson” (Caged bird, 98). Such unqualified acceptance allows her to experience the incipient power of her own self-worth. (Modern Critical Views, 9).
Angelou describes again the inequality between whites and blacks and looked them in “cage”. Equal education opportunities are also lacking, and the intellectual capacities of blacks are assumed severely limited; the schools provide an academic curriculum for whites and an athletic one for blacks. “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileo and Edison…and the (black) boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises,” writes Angelou (Caged Bird, 151). Using both irony and straightforward description, Angelou confronts racism and gender bias, and tries to sensitize readers to these issues. Her voice come stronger and emotional “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”. (Caged Bird, 153)
At the graduation ceremony, during which the exciting expectation of the young graduates and their families and friends are exploded casually by the words of an oblivious and insensitive white speaker, the young girl comes to know already the desperation of impotence (Modern Critical, 10):
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to it quietly and listens 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. (Caged bird, 153)
Angelou using her memories to show how hard was the life of black society she was “caged” in black community. During a Gradation Party Maya gets a toothache and goes to see a white doctor. The doctor refuses to put his hands in a black girl’s mouth saying: “My policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s” (Caged Bird, 160). …………………………..
Maya continues her story in 1941 where her mother, Vivian marries Clidell and they move to San Francisco. Maya and Baily again went to live with Vivian Baxter. Maya attended to George Washington High School and the age fourteen received scholarship to attend to California Labor School, where she took evening classes in a drama and dance. In 1943 when Maya was 15 years old she spent a summer with her father at a trailer park in Los Angeles. Maya accompanies her father to a small Mexican town where he proceeds to get obviously drunk, leaving her with responsibility of getting them back to Los Angeles. For the first time, Maya finds herself totally in control for her fate. She never had driven a car but her courage she did. And although the drive culminates in accidents, she triumphs.
Unable to get along with her father and his live-in girlfriend she ran away and lived for 6 weeks in junkyard that was the residence of a community of homeless children. Angelou was impressed by this nonjudgmental and self-sufficient group of young transients and she felt that her experience with them served as a kind of initiation into the human race. Recalling this group in Caged Bird Angelou wrote:
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 outside 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” (215).
This moment succeeded by a month spend wrecked car provide her with knowledge of self-determination and a confirmation of her self-worth. With this affirmative knowledge and power, while is she was in high school she decide to work and applied for a position as a conductor in streetcars.
Stamps’ acquiescence and “cage” is left far behind in Arkansas Maya assumes control over her own social destiny and engaged in the struggle with life’s forces. Braxton argues that another positive identity experience occurs in the world of work Marguerite is determine to become a “conductor” on the San Francisco streetcars, even though no black have been hired previously. She visits the Market Street Railway Office with “the frequency of a person on salary” until she is hired, breaking the color barrier previously imposed against blacks and achieving a degree of independence (Modern Critical, 228. )
In her story, Maya concludes, “The black female is assaulted in her tender year by those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (Caged Bird, 231) She has broken out the rusted bars of her social “cage”. (page 11)
Maya become increasingly concerned about her body, which to her seemed unfeminine and underdeveloped. Though her mother tried to informed her otherwise, Angelou feared that she was physically abnormal and began to wonder if she could be lesbian. Wanting to assure herself of her sexual identity, Angelou invited a male classmate to have sex with her one time. The incident resulted in a pregnancy and have a baby boy. It is the born of the baby the main turn point in Maya’s life and her triumph.
Maya Angelou’s autobiography comes to a sense of an ending: the black American girl child has succeed in freeing herself from the natural and social bars imprisoning her in the cage of her diminished self-image by assuming control of her life and fully acceptation her black womanhood. (Modern critic, 12)
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