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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Explain in detail an example of racism in the story I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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In many ways, it is the questions the narrator asks that she cannot answer that most fully open the complexity and pain of racism.  Consider Bailey’s story about the dead black man on the train, wrapped in a sheet.  A white man took off the sheet, and Bailey saw the dead man “colorless,” and it terrified him as well as the black men near him. (Does color disappear in death?  Is it only a fact of life?) When the white man threatened to put the dead man in the car with the black men, they, terrified of the colorless, dead, black man, fell into patterns of subservient behavior, calling the white man “Boss” and pleading with him not to lock them up with the cadaver, while the white guy only laughed and ridiculed them.  The narrator describes this as a “humorless puzzle of inequality and hate.  His experience raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority an aggressive arrogance.  Could Uncle Willie….hope to answer the questions, both asked and unuttered? Would Momma, who  knew the ways of the whites and the wiles of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose very life depended on his not truly understand the enigma?” (168).

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