Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Specifically it will discuss the themes of racism and segregation in the book, strong themes that are woven throughout this moving autobiography. In this autobiography, author Maya Angelou recounts the story of her early life, including the racism and segregation she experiences throughout her formative years. With wit, candor, and remarkable talent, Angelou shows racism is a product of ignorance and prejudice, and that she has found the strength to rise above this crippling condition.
Angelou opens her biography with the dreams of a child, whishing she could be white in a white world. She writes, "Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy godmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, whit nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil" (Angelou 4-5). Throughout her youth, she faces a world of prejudice and racism, and instead of embracing her heritage, she wants to be white, because the whites are the people with power and money. The whites were also the people that controlled the blacks, and Angelou finds this out, often the hard way, as her life continues. One literary critic notes, "Angelou's account of her childhood and adolescence chronicles her frequent encounters with racism, sexism, and classism at the same time that she describes the people, events, and personal qualities that helped her to survive the devastating effects of her environment" (Megna-Wallace 2). While this book chronicles a lifetime of racism and prejudice, Angelou's eloquent use of the language almost softens the blow by making it lyrical and beautiful to read, but the underlying rage and distress at the differences between blacks and whites is never far from the surface in this autobiography.
Sent by her parents to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou and her brother witness firsthand the difficulties blacks have earning an living in the agricultural South, and this begins a slow-burning rage against racism and prejudice that will last her entire life. She writes, "In cotton-picking time the late afternoons revealed the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature's blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight" (Angelou 10). She shows that life was unbelievably difficult for these poor black people who had nothing to look forward to but work, debt, and despair, and it teachers her lessons about her own life, existence, and outlook. Another clue to this existence is the time when the sheriff warns Uncle Willie of an impending Ku Klux Klan raid. Willie hides in a vegetable bin, even though he is disabled and nearly incapable of molesting anyone. The blacks accept this treatment because they have to in order to survive. Nevertheless, even at her young age, Angelou resents the "benevolent" white man who warns her family but allows the behavior to continue. Her bitterness at this and many other events colors her life, and indicates just how deeply prejudice ran in the South, and how it affected so many people's lives. She alludes to this when she writes, "All of childhood's unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there" (Angelou 19). Thus, the black experience is wrapped up in the place, the positions of blacks and whites, and the time, and it is clear that Angelou's childhood has had a major affect on her life, her outlook, and her own views about race and prejudice.
Angelou encounters an entirely different world when she and her brother move to St. Louis to live with her mother and her family. Here, she encounters black people like her mother and grandmother, who actually have some power in the community, and who live an entirely different life than the rural life in Arkansas. They have jobs, make relatively decent money, and do not live in abject poverty. However, they are also violent, engage in illegal activities, and ultimately her mother's boyfriend molests and then rapes Angelou, then threatens her with killing her beloved brother if she every tells an adult. This leads to a long period of time where she refuses to speak to anyone. She writes of this time, "There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn't understand and who made no effort to understand mine" (Angelou 72). This may be one of the loneliest periods in Angelou's life, but in some ways, it made her stronger and more able to survive in the white's world, even though it was a terrible ordeal.
After she stops speaking, Angelou and her brother are sent back to Stamps to live. Here, she begins to see the solace that many blacks feel in their resignation and acceptance of bigotry and racism. She writes, "They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life's inequities was a lesson for me" (Angelou 86). Angelou learned this lesson, but never quite became satisfied with life's inequities; thankfully, she retained some of her rage and the inequities between white and black, which gives great depth and emotion to her writing and her life.
The importance of education and knowledge is at the root of Angelou's flight from the South, and she realizes it. Critic Harold Bloom writes, "Marguerite is showered with affectionate attention and gifts, and not only from her family and immediate circle of friends" (Bloom 77). Befriended by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou learns to appreciate even more learning, literature, and manners, and understands that these are the keys to leaving the poverty of the rural South behind. She says of Flowers, "She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be" (Angelou 91). Flowers taught her to appreciate many things, including the value of an education, and when she graduates from high school, it is a time of celebration for the entire community. Angelou writes, "Mrs. Sneed, the minister's wife, made me an undershirt to wear for graduation, and nearly every customer gave me a nickel or maybe even a dime with the instruction 'Keep on moving to higher ground,' or some such encouragement" (Angelou 169). The other blacks understand this too, but sadly, due to racism and prejudice, many blacks could not gain a decent education during this time, and so, were doomed to low paying jobs that would not take them anywhere. Angelou noticed this in St. Louis, where the educational divides were even more pronounced than in Stamps, and many black children could not even read or write, even though they attended school.
Scattered throughout the book are so many small acts by whites that seem innocuous, but in reality only add to Angelou's rage. They are shown to be unimportant to the whites, but also show just how little they think of the blacks that do their dirty work and wait on them. One woman refuses to call her black servants by their given names, "renaming" them with her own names that are shorter and easier to pronounce. Unable to deal with Marguerite, she calls Angelou "Mary," and Angelou gets even by breaking some of the woman's favorite china. Even as a child, Angelou knew who she was and who she wanted to be in the world and that world did not include racism and prejudice.
Angelou's work is a work filled with racism, prejudice, and ignorance, but it is also an enduring work of survival and hope. Another critic writes, "Angelou survived [...] through strong support from the black church and particularly her family members who were always there to 'sustain and nurture' her (Woodard). Angelou's family clearly had just as large an affect on her as her experiences as a child, and much of her family was caring, loving, just, and strict at the same time. Much of her strength and determination came from her family, who had the same values and taught them to her. They taught her to worship God, work hard, get an education, and hold her head up in the face of adversity, and she put all these lessons to good use in her adult life.
Perhaps the best clue to this book's racial content is the fact that so many people wanted to ban this book from libraries and educational systems due to its "sexual content" (Dority 36). Authors and journalists often mention the book when they write about "Banned Book Week" in America (Holmes 1). In fact, the book is on the American Library's "Top 100" list of the most challenged books in American libraries between 1990 and 2000 (Editors). Thus, writing in an honest and open way about her sexual abuse has outraged many whites and conservatives, and they have called for banning the book. The…