Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, its title taken from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” is an autobiographical story of survival. The vignettes, held together by time, place, and narrator, are joyous, angry, fearful, and desperate, but not bitter.
One of the most desperate and fearful events in the book is the account of Mr. Freeman raping the eight-year-old Maya. Angelou’s candid narrative explores her childhood desire to be loved and her pain and horror at the psychological and physical violation of the rape. Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey if Maya tells what she and Mr. Freeman did. By using the words “what we did,” Mr. Freeman makes her feel responsible for his actions. When Bailey realizes that Mr. Freeman has somehow hurt his sister, he convinces her that Mr. Freeman, who has moved out of the house, can no longer hurt them. Trusting Bailey’s judgment, she tells him about the rape. Angelou is hospitalized, Mr. Freeman is arrested, and the family comes to her aid. Bailey sits by her hospital bed and cries, her mother brings flowers and candy, Grandmother Baxter brings fruit, and her uncles clump around her bed and snort “like wild horses.” After Mr. Freeman is sentenced to “one year and one day,” his lawyer gets him released. Later he is “found dead on the lot behind the slaughterhouse,” where his body has been dumped; he appears to have been kicked to death. Angelou, feeling responsible for Mr. Freeman’s death, remains a mute until she is thirteen years old.
Angelou is often asked why she put the rape scene in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In a 1983 interview, she said that she “wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre. The hard thing about writing or directing or producing is to make sure one doesn’t make the negative person totally negative. I try to tell the truth and preserve it in all artistic forms.” Angelou’s profile of Mr. Freeman is, in fact, complex. Angelou also candidly explores, through this rape, the feelings of guilt in victims. In a 1987 interview, she said that guilt is still part of the victim’s burden. Referring to child rape, she concluded that “the victim, especially if you are a member of a depressed class or gender or sex, is loaded with the guilt for that action against herself or himself.” Nowhere else in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings do the fear and desperation in survival surface more painfully. Nevertheless, Angelou consistently rejects bitterness as a response to pain, fear, and despair. She maintains that bitterness destroys the bitter person but has no effect on the object of the bitterness.
Connected to the theme of survival are flights from danger and searches for sanctuary. Ironically, the opening vignette shows Angelou fleeing the church, a traditional sanctuary, and seeking safety at home, where she knows that a beating awaits her. Again, when the teenage Maya flees her father’s violent girlfriend, she seeks safety in the streets. An implied theme is that church and home, traditional sanctuaries, can fail and that survival depends on individual strength. In her journey to adulthood, Angelou comes to realize that her survival rests on believing in her own value, regardless of the low value that her culture places on her race and gender.
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