I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings written by Maya Angelou, is an autobiography set in the first half of the 20th century. In this book the narrator, Maya who is also the protagonist, tells a story of her account of racial prejudice and discrimination within the south and America overall. Throughout the story as she gets older, Maya grows in her character and conscience due to her experiences and surroundings. Maya was originally born in California to Vivian and Bailey.
A mere three years later, her parents divorce and ship her with her brother, Bailey, at the tender ages of three and four, to their grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Arkansas. Their grandmother, Annie Henderson is a mother figure to both Maya and Bailey, as they call her Momma. Uncle Willie is a crippled adult man who is the son of Mrs. Henderson. Throughout the children’s early childhood they often find themselves questioning their parents’ rejection and decision in sending them to their grandmother. This not only hurts them but intensifies Maya’s insecurities.
Bailey had always had her back and was there for her, one of the many reasons for them being so close.As the children were used to their lives in Stamps, they hadn’t had the least bit of anticipation of ever seeing their parents again. They even started to think they were dead as they had not heard anything from them in years. This changed one year when they received gifts from their parents for Christmas.
The gifts didn’t reassure them as much as make them even sadder. But, one year later they were surprised to see their father,”Big Bailey”, appearing in his fancy car in front of the store. Their father stayed for a couple of days, catching up with all of the people that he grew up with. Bailey as well did get to know their father and looked as if he admired him and the way he spoke. Maya on the other hand had not the same experience and feelings toward their father. When his visit had come to an end Big Bailey took Maya and Bailey to see their mother in St.
Louis, Missouri. When he left just one day later, Maya had felt no dismay because to her, it was just one stranger leaving her to live with another. In St. Louis Maya had lived with her maternal grandparents for months before living with their mother and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Six months later, Maya and Bailey move away with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Life there wasn’t much different than with Grandmother Baxter.
She spent most of her time reading stories and started to grow apart from Bailey. Their mother worked through nights and was usually back home in time to say goodnight to the children. As Maya started to have frequent nightmares, she would crawl into bed with her mother and Mr. Freeman.
After awhile it became a normality and Maya felt comfortable there. One morning when Maya’s mother had left, Maya stayed asleep with Mr. Freeman in the bed. She then woke up to Mr. Freeman sexually molesting her.
Although this was wrong, Maya felt safe with him because he touched her with such care, something she had never really experienced before. But at the innocent age of eight, how could Maya understand what was happening. Eventually, Mr. Freeman raped Maya. It was not long until her mother found out and Mr.
Freeman was arrested. Maya was still traumatized and confused due to the whole situation and in result, Maya and Bailey were sent back to Stamps. Back in Stamps Maya noticed the barrenness of the town, which also represents Maya’s mood at the time. A respected woman in town named Bertha Flowers hears about Maya’s lack in communication and educates Maya about literature and speech in general.
Maya was grateful and through literature she reverts back to her normal self. The children experienced racial prejudice, returning back to Stamps, more than ever before. Therefore, Mrs. Henderson made plans for them to move to California with their mother. Their mother was in worry of her children’s well being and begins to be protective over them. Maya and Bailey got to finally see what kind of person their mother is and start to admire her. Vivian eventually marries a successful man named Daddy Clidell, who was the best father figure that the children had ever had, and they all move to San Francisco.
In San Francisco Maya notes the changes in the community after the world war, regarding blacks and whites working together. The sudden change made Maya feel warm and as if she was at home for the first time in her life. Her father invites Maya to spend the summer with him and his girlfriend, Dolores.
During the summer they take many trips together, including to Mexico.Strangely, these trips didn’t include Dolores. But by spending so much time together, they start to make up for what they had missed when she was a child, and Maya begins to see her father differently. During one trip to the bar, late in the evening, Maya cannot find her father and stays in his car to wait for him.
He later enters the car, drunk and passes out inside it. Maya who has never driven a car before, drives fifty miles back to the border. Big Bailey wakes up and proceeds to drive them back home. Back home Dolores complains that Maya is getting in the way of her and her father.
Maya eventually confronts Dolores and the confrontation becomes violent, resulting in Maya being injured and taken to one of her father’s friend’s house to recover and stay. The next day, Big Bailey had come over to give Maya money in the afternoon and promises to return in the evening. Maya, dreading to face her father’s friends, then takes the liberty of herself to pack some food and leave. She doesn’t want to return to her mom, ashamed of her injury, so she spends that night in a car in a junkyard. She wakes up to teenagers of the black, white and mexican races telling her that she could stay, but she’d have to work and obey the general rules. She begins to work with these men and makes her own, signalling her independence.
This is the climax of the story. When she finally realizes that she’s in control of her own life, she grows to respect for herself. She started to realize things about humanity from working with other races in the junkyard and that race can be colorless. Maya grew up as an insecure, dependent, and naive black girl in the smoldering South.
She has many intense insecurities of her own, being a negro girl. Maya has not been proud of being who she was and of her appearance. She resented her appearance compared to white children and her own brother Bailey, who is complimented on his appearance, while Maya insulted. She even started to believe that she was adopted to keep Bailey company. Being ‘abandoned’ by her parents at such a young age hurts Maya and makes her wonder why her parents didn’t want her. This mentality that she starts to develop makes the insecurities that she already had about herself, more extreme.
While she was trying to recite a poem at an Easter church congregation she marveled at the thought of being a white girl and at the appearance she’d have. “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream. And my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?” As time flew by, Maya began to have better things to say about being a negro black girl, and negro women overall. She had way more respect for them and herself and began to embrace her ‘blackness’.
” The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.” She sees these characteristics within her mother and grandmother and begin to admire those traits. Independence was certainly not in Maya’s vocabulary during her early childhood. One would think that growing up in the oppressive south, that anyone would grow thick skin.
Maya did not know how to stick up for herself, another factor of her insecurities. She was lucky though, to have Bailey by her side to stick up for her, soon becoming dependent on him. Also, being a child who moved from home to home quite frequently it was hard for her to be independent. She always had someone watching over her and making sure she was safe. But as she grew older, she finally became independent. She managed to become the first ever negro streetcar conductor, returns to school despite her mother’s input, and choses to continue while she’s pregnant.
She also shows great self goverenization when she joins the junkyard teenagers, and works with them, making her own in the world. Although there was definitely racism and prejudice among whites and blacks in Stamps within the early half of the 20th century, Maya had preconceived notions about the whites as a whole race. She had hatred within her heart about the race, believing that they should be on the bottom instead. She had put all white people into one category, bad.
She was too naive and didn’t figure out til long after, that some whites were good people. Maya had stooped to the same level of hatred that the whites had about blacks. “We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. “A pyramid of flesh with the white folks on the bottom, as the broad base…” At the end of the book, after the second world war, she discovered that whites and blacks could coexist. Not only whites and blacks, but other races as well. It’s amazing that something so cruel as war, could unify and mend even temporarily, something so harsh as segregation, racism, and prejudice. One of the major themes within this autobiography is rape.
Rape is a prominent theme in this book, even though it may not be obvious, because it is exemplified in different ways. Rape is an action in which something is being taken away from someone or something. This term is most commonly used in the sexual attacking of another without consent or will.
But in fact, along with the literal term, it is used as a metaphor in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Rape is used as a metaphor to describe the sufferings within the black race. The negro race is perceived as the poorest race in Stamps, and the one with less value and edicate. Negros didn’t become lawyers, doctors, and politicians as the white folks had. If they had any hope to become something it was a professional athlete. It was a shame, especially to Maya that blacks couldn’t achieve success through academics.
The black men who weren’t athletic ended up being plantation workers and cotton pickers. It enraged Maya to see these men go to and from work every day. In the mornings, they would walk into the Store all sing-songy and energetic to buy lunch from Mrs. Henderson. Maya would watch is disbelief and rage as the men would brag and contest about how much cotton they had picked or who would pick the most cotton.
By the end of the day, the men were barely able walk all the way home because of the weary and stressful work on the fields. They often found out that they’d been underpaid and had suspicion of illegally weighed scales. They ended up not having enough to make a living and pay off their debts.
The negro culture was constantly being raped and having their rights taken away, their money, and their liberty to be able to hold certain titles. Maya was extremely passionate about this theme of race. “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.
” In addition to the African American Culture, Maya is also raped. She is raped in two ways, physically and mentally. She is physically raped by her mother’s boyfriend Mr. Freeman as a young girl. This is pretty vaguely described in the book, as it was an important event. I believe the author did this to not draw all of the reader’s attention to the literal event of rape, but to use it as a metaphor within the rest of the book. This event not only affects her but affects the mood of the book and themes including race and segregation. Maya is also raped mentally as a result of many factors, let alone Mr.
Freeman. Through racial prejudice and segregation she was raped of her liberty, independence, and identity. Being a black girl in the south was not something Maya was proud of at the time. She had no trace of identity, she didn’t really know who she was. She had wanted to be someone else and awaken from this ugly black nightmare.
She wanted to escape from this cage that restricted her, known as society. She was the caged bird. Her being displaced at a young age from “home” to “home” also deprived her of her identity. One’s home is apart of them and who they turn out to be, the surroundings influence that person. She is also raped of her independence due to being tossed around as she was. She was also being watched over by people especially after the incident with Mr.
Freeman. As she was getting older she had to make a choice to lead herself. And once she did, it made her respect herself more than ever before. Throughout, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the reader tries to empathize and have sympathy for Maya as they take a ride throughout her childhood and adolescent life.
As Maya gets older they see her not get more mature, as she already was, but become more confident and wise. The reader gets a sense of what it was like in the early 1900s and learns the importance of self-acceptance,love, and appreciation through the struggles of Maya and her accounts in life. The insecurities that she once hated as a child, all those differences, became her greatest strengths as she grew older.
Contrasting from an insecure young negro girl to a powerful black woman, a woman like her mother and her grandmother. Maya had to learn to embrace those insecurities, the ones that would soon make her so successful.