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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou
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A quote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings states “Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.” What is the path, and how did Angelou react to going down that path?

The old path is one of deference to white people. When Momma teaches Bailey and Maya about safe paths, she means for them to stick to the prevailing racial code. Among other things, this means not being insolent to white people, not even in private, as this could be dangerous. Later on, Maya reacts to her Momma's teachings by asserting her dignity as a black woman and demanding equality.

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Momma's teachings may seem to be unacceptable in that they involve keeping her children in a state of deference to white people. But there's a good reason for her to impart this lesson. In this part of the world, it's considered dangerous for an African American to show any kind...

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Momma's teachings may seem to be unacceptable in that they involve keeping her children in a state of deference to white people. But there's a good reason for her to impart this lesson. In this part of the world, it's considered dangerous for an African American to show any kind of insolence towards the horribly racist white people. The slightest glance or word out of turn can be enough for a black man or woman to end up being summarily lynched.

There is no protection from the law; in fact, law enforcement officials often connive with lynch mobs in carrying out such atrocities. Under the circumstances, then, Momma feels that she has no choice but to protect her children by advising them to walk on the same path that she's had to walk on her whole life.

Maya's too young to understand any of this when she first hears it. It's only later on when she realizes that the path walked on by her mother is not the right path for her. When she moves to San Francisco and tries to find a job on the streetcars, she is told that black people aren't allowed to work there. Instead of responding with deference as her mother would've done, Maya stands her ground, displaying, in her words, "haughty indignation" and stubbornness. Maya's persistence pays off, and she becomes the first African American to find a job on the street cars.

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