Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1781
Encouraged by her editor and family to remember and write about her childhood, Maya Angelou produced the first of five autobiographies and the literary work for which she is probably best known, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She acknowledges them by writing, "I thank my mother, Vivian Baxter, and my bother, Bailey Johnson, who encouraged me to remember. And a final thanks to my editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, who gently prodded me back into the lost years." Perhaps those memories have assisted her in her diverse and incredibly productive career. In addition to the autobiographies generally recognized as a sort of "never-finished canvas," Angelou has published volumes of poetry, composed musical scores, and worked as a freelance writer and editor in America and abroad. She has also written, directed, and acted on stage and screen, and recited for the world her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" for President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
Whatever the medium or type of artistic endeavor, Angelou most often celebrates the endurance and triumph of the individual over adversity. As Angelou says, "I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive." When we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we may at first wonder how anyone could survive that childhood, but we come to realize the answers to that survival.
Of course, there are many ways to interpret this book. Some critics look for its formal literary devices such as imagery or symbols. Most recognize it as a type of bildungsroman or a "coming of age" book that traces individual, social, and intellectual development. Others take the book's organization and link that to a more personal, coming to political-social, awareness on Angelou's part. One critic, Pierre A. Walker, maintains that the structure "reveals a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest." In other words, Maya starts out helpless and angry about social injustices, then learns how to resist without confrontation, and finally actively and vocally protests racism and oppression.
All these interpretations make valid points, as do many others. However, Angelou herself points us to one of the most important aspects of the book. In an interview, she relates how many people come up to her and say, "I just wrote, I mean, I just read your book." Angelou understands these slips of the tongue to mean that the readers identity with her in the book, as if it were their own autobiography. In fact, if we focus on the contrasts in Caged Bird, then we see a young, black girl's coming-of-age in the America of the 1930s and 1940s that shows us what it means, or can mean, to be human.
Contrasts and opposites fill the book, and many are quite obvious. Over and over again, the girl Marguerite (Maya) compares herself to her brother Bailey. While he is handsome, quick, and glib, she refers to herself as ugly, awkward, and tongue-tied. In Stamps, Arkansas, where the children spend much of their childhood, nothing much happens except the same rounds of chores, school-work, church, and helping Momma and Uncle Willie in the Store. Maya says of this sameness, "The country had been in the throes of the Depression two years before the Negroes in Stamps knew it." The town was so segregated that the children can hardly believe that whites are real.
On the other hand, St. Louis and San Francisco teem with activities and peoples. There are bars and restaurants and music and dancing with their mother in St. Louis and the boom of wartime later in San Francisco where the streets are crowded with soldiers and workers of all nationalities. Momma may be strong and smart, but her darkness and countrified speech sometimes make Maya cringe. Grandmother Baxter, though, is "nearly white," a trained professional nurse, with a German accent. Other contrasts, however, come upon us more subtly, in part because of the episodic structure of the book. Almost every chapter reads as a complete short story or episode that doesn't need all the other details of the book to be understood. Every episode contains its contrasts as well.
How many of us have not imagined ourselves different than the way we are, especially when we're young? This sort of imagining on the part of young Maya opens Caged Bird and shows us the first of many contrasts. The young girl stands before the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church congregation in Stamps, Arkansas. She wears a cut-down, redone white woman's dress. It is made of taffeta, however, and the girl feels that this material makes up for its "awful" lavender color. She just knew that when people saw her in that dress that her grandmother, Momma, had done over by hand, that they would recognize her real self. Her "real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of that kinky mass, and her light blue eyes would hypnotize them." They would come to understand why she didn't pick up a Southern accent or the common slang, and why she had to be "forced to eat pigs tails and snouts." She "was really white" and self-assured as a movie star, just now under "a cruel fairy stepmother's spell" that had turned her into "a too-big Negro girl with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil." But here on Easter morning she ends up mumbling her lines and running out. Angelou ends this episode, "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her own displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult." It is painful to be aware. It is painful to be separate.
The reality of herself, the imagined self, and this sense of displacement must eventually be reconciled. As she matures, she sheds the notion of becoming white and comes to be proud of her race and her heritage. After her period of silence and under the tutelage of the gentlewoman, Miss Bertha Flowers, "our side's answer to the richest white woman in town," she learned she must "always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy." She learned from Miss Flowers that mute words on a page take life when "infused" with the human voice. She takes extreme pride in Momma's standing up and speaking out to the white dentist (the only dentist in Stamps) who wouldn't treat Maya's toothache because he'd "sooner stick his hand in a dog's mouth." Although her imaginings of that "showdown" are quite different than the reality, Maya knows the difference this time, liking her own version better.
Maya wrestles to come to terms with other contradictions that do not make sense. Joe Louis successfully defends the heavyweight championship title, yet the people listening to the fight on the Store's radio must stay with friends close by. "It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved we were the strongest people in the world." She feels anger at her grammar school graduation when the white school official, Donleavy, speaks of the future for the white and black schools. The white school will get "new microscopes and chemistry equipment" while the black students would get a playing field. "The white kids were going to have the chance to become Galileos and Madame Curries" while we would be athletes, "maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen." The man with his "dead words" had killed the promise and hope of the occasion. But she then revels in the triumph as the valedictorian Henry Reed gives his address, "To Be or Not to Be," and turns to the class, leading them in "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" so that the time was theirs again, or as Maya says, "We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race." She has resolved the conflict of white perceptions and actions with the reality and the triumphant spirit of her community's endurance. However, the hardest to reconcile surely comes with the brutal rape of her as a child.
When Angelou writes about the rape she suffered from her mother's boyfriend in St. Louis, she describes this horrible violation with a reference to a biblical passage. "The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator can't." The biblical language and reference connects this horrifying episode to a spiritual tent revival she later attends in Stamps. She relates, "Hadn't He Himself said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven?" This connection seems impossibly contradictory. One act is of violation and oppression that results in Mr. Freeman's death and five years of fearful silence for Maya. The other act involves redemption and affirmation of life everlasting. How does one reconcile brutality here and the promise of milk and honey?
Just as the child had to give in to her rapist because she had no choice but to endure and survive, the blacks had no choice. The songs at the revival and songs heard from the honky-tonk as people walked home "asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?" How many times would black men have to hide in the cellars because some crowd is out for blood? How long would Momma bear with stoic composure white girls' insults? How long must any of us try to reconcile the contradictions of bigotry or sexism? Or any of the injustices people seem so intent on inflicting on another? Surely, Angelou's answer would be, as long as necessary for survival and not a moment longer. When we resolve those contradictions in our own lives, those opposites that exist simultaneously, we find the courage to be human. As we overcome those conflicts, we learn to survive because we must. Because we are human. Because Angelou shows us we can do more than endure. We can triumph. "Can't do is like Don't Care. Neither of them have a home."
Source: Edward E Eller, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2642
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the autobiography of Maya Angelou, is the story of one girl's growing up. But, like any literary masterpiece, the story of this one black girl declaring "I can" to a color-coded society that in innumerable ways had told her "you can't, you won't" transcends its author. It is an affirmation; it promises that life, if we have the courage to live it, will be worth the struggle. A book of this description might seem good reading for junior high and high school students. According to People for the American Way, however, Caged Bird was the ninth "most frequently challenged book" in American school. Caged Bird elicits criticism for its honest depiction of rape, its exploration of the ugly spectre of racism in America, its recounting of the circumstances of Angelou's own out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, and its humorous poking at the foibles of the institutional church. Arguments advocating that Caged Bird be banned from school reading lists reveal that the complainants, often parents, tend to regard any treatment of these kinds of subject matter in school as inappropriate—despite the fact that the realities and issues of sexuality and violence, in particular, are commonplace in contemporary teenage intercourse and discourse. The children, they imply, are too innocent for such depictions; they might be harmed by the truth.
This is a curious notion—that seriousness should be banned from the classroom, while beyond the classroom, the irresponsible and sensational exploitation of sexual, violent, and profane materials is as routine as the daily dose of soap opera. The degradation of feeling caused by slurs directed against persons for their race/class/sex/sexual preference is one of the more difficult hurdles of youthful rites of passage. But it's not just bad TV or the meanness of children. More and more, society is serving an unappetizing fare on a child-sized plate—television screens, t-shirt sloganeers, and weak politicians admonish children to "say 'no' to drugs and drugpushers"; to be wary of strangers; to have safe sex; to report their own or other abusing parents, relatives or neighbors; to be wary of friends; to recognize the signs of alcoholism; to exercise self control in the absence of parental or societal controls; even to take their Halloween candy to the hospital to be x-rayed before consumption. In response to these complications in the landscape of childhood, parent groups, religious groups, and media have called for educators to "bring morality back into the classroom" while we "get back to basics" in a pristine atmosphere of moral non-complexity, outside of the context of the very real world that is squeezing in on that highly touted childhood innocence every single day.
Our teenagers are inundated with the discouragements of life. Ensconced in a literal world, they are shaping their life choices within the dichotomies of TV ads: Bud Light vs. "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Life becomes a set of skewed and cynical oppositions: "good" vs. easy, yes vs. "catch me," "right" vs. expediency.
In truth, what young readers seem most innocent of these days is not sex, murder, or profanity, but concepts of self empowerment, faith, struggle as quest, the nobility of intellectual inquiry, survival, and the nature and complexity of moral choice. Caged Bird offers these seemingly abstract (adult) concepts to a younger audience that needs to know that their lives are not inherited or predestined, that they can be participants in an exuberant struggle to subjugate traditions of ignorance and fear. Critics of this book might tend to overlook or devalue the necessity of such insights for the young.
Caged Bird's critics imply an immorality in the work based on the book's images. However, it is through Angelou's vivid depictions of human spiritual triumph set against a backdrop of human weakness and failing that the autobiography speaks dramatically about moral choice. Angelou paints a picture of some of the negative choices: white America choosing to oppress groups of people; choosing lynch law over justice; choosing intimidation over honor. She offers, however, "deep talk" on the possibility of positive choices: choosing life over death (despite the difficulty of that life); choosing courage over safety; choosing discipline over chaos; choosing voice over silence; choosing compassion over pity, over hatred, over habit; choosing work and planning and hope over useless recrimination and slovenly despair. The book's detractors seem unwilling to admit that morality is not edict (or an innate property of innocence), but the learned capacity for judgement, and that the necessity of moral choice arises only in the presence of the soul's imperfection.
Self empowerment, faith, struggle as quest, survival, intellectual curiosity, complexity of choice—these ideas are the underpinning of Maya Angelou's story. To explore these themes, the autobiography poses its own set of oppositions: Traditional society and values vs. contemporary society and its values; silence vs. self expression; literacy vs. the forces of oppression; the nature of generosity vs. the nature of cruelty; spirituality vs. ritual. Every episode of Caged Bird, engages these and other ideas in Maya Angelou's portrait of a young girl's struggle against adversity—a struggle against rape: rape of the body, the soul, the mind, the future, of expectation, of tenderness—towards identity and self affirmation. If we cannot delete rape from our lives, should we delete it from a book about life?
Caged Bird opens with the poignant, halting voice of Marguerite Johnson, the young Maya Angelou, struggling for her own voice beneath the vapid doggerel of the yearly Easter pageant:
"What you lookin at me for?"
"I didn't come to stay."
These two lines prefigure the entire work. "What you lookin at me for..." is the painful question of every black girl made self-conscious and self doubting by a white world critical of her very existence. The claim that she "didn't come to stay" increases in irony as the entire work ultimately affirms the determination of Marguerite Johnson and, symbolically, all of the unsung survivors of the Middle Passage, to do that very thing—to stay. To stay is to affirm life and the possibility of redemption. To stay—despite the circumstance of our coming (slavery), despite the efforts to remove us (lynching) or make us invisible (segregation).
Angelou, in disarmingly picturesque and humorous scenes like this opening glimpse of her girl-self forgetting her lines and wetting her pants in her earliest effort at public speech, continually reminds us that we survive the painfulness of life by the tender stabilities of family and community. As she hurries from the church trying to beat the wetness coursing down her thighs, she hears the benedictory murmurs of the old church ladies saying, "Lord bless the child," and "Praise God."
This opening recitation lays a metaphorical foundation for the autobiography, and for our understanding of the trauma of rape that causes Marguerite to stifle her voice for seven years. In some ways, the rape of Marguerite provides the center and the bottom of this autobiographical statement.
Critics of the work charge that the scenes of seduction and rape are too graphically rendered:
He [Mr. Freeman] took my hand and said, "Feel it." It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die. Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go.
The seeming ambivalence of this portrait of the dynamics of interfamilial rape elicits distaste among those who prefer, if rape must be portrayed at all, for it to be painted with the hard edges of guilt and innocence. Yet, this portrait reflects the sensibilities of eight-year-old Marguerite Johnson—full of her barely understood longings and the vulnerability of ignorance:
... Mama had drilled into my head. "Keep your legs closed, and don't let nobody see your pocketbook."
Mrs. Baxter has given her daughter that oblique homespun wisdom designed to delay the inevitable. Such advice may forewarn, but does not forearm and, characteristic of the penod, does not even entertain the unthinkable improbability of the rape of a child. Aside from this vague caution, and the knowledge that "lots of people did 'it' and they used their 'things' to accomplish the deed...," Marguerite does not know how to understand or respond to the gentle, seemingly harmless Mr. Freeman because he is "family," he is an adult (not to be questioned), and he offers her what appears to be the tenderness she craves that had not been characteristic of her strict southern upbringing.
When asked why she included the rape in her autobiography, Angelou has said [in Conversations with Maya Angelou, edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot], "I wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre." And it is this fact that poses one of the difficulties of rape and the inability of children, intellectually unprepared, to protect themselves. If the rapists were all terrible ogres and strangers in dark alleys, it would be easier to know when to run, when to scream, when to "say no." But the devastation of rape is subtle in its horror and betrayal, which creates in Marguerite feelings of complicity in her own assault. When queried by Mr. Freeman's defense attorney about whether Mr. Freeman had ever touched her on occasions before the rape, Marguerite, recalling that first encounter, realizes immediately something about the nature of language, its inflexibility, its inability to render the whole truth, and the palpable danger of being misunderstood:
I couldn't .. tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close before he thought I had peed in my bed. My uncles would kill me and Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry. And all those people in the court would stone me as they had stoned the harlot in the Bible. And Mother, who thought I was such a good girl, would be so disappointed. But most important, there was Bailey. I had kept a big secret from him.
To protect herself, Marguerite lies: "Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be No. Everyone except Mr. Freeman and me."
Some schools that have chosen not to ban Caged Bird completely have compromised by deleting "those rape chapters." It should be clear, however, that this portrayal of rape is hardly titillating or "pornographic." It raises issues of trust, truth and lie, love, the naturalness of a child's craving for human contact, language and understanding, and the confusion engendered by the power disparities that necessarily exist between children and adults. High school students should be given the opportunity to gain insight into these subtleties of human relationships and entertain the "moral" questions raised by the work....
Caged Bird, in this scene so often deleted from classroom study, opens the door for discussion about the prevalent confusion between a young person's desire for affection and sexual invitation. Certainly, this is a valuable distinction to make, and one that young men and women are often unable to perceive or articulate. Angelou also reveals the manner by which an adult manipulates a child's desire for love as a thin camouflage for his own crude motives. A further complication to the neat assignment of blame is that Marguerite's lie is not prompted by a desire to harm Mr. Freeman, but out of her feelings of helplessness and dread. Yet, she perceives that the effect of that lie is profound—so profound that she decides to stop her own voice, both as penance for the death of Mr. Freeman and out of fear of the power of her words: "... a man was dead because I had lied."
This dramatization of the ambiguity of truth and the fearfulness of an Old Testament justice raises questions of justice and the desirability of truth in a world strapped in fear, misunderstanding, and the inadequacy of language. The story reveals how violence can emerge out of the innocent routines of life; how betrayal can be camouflaged with blame; that adults are individual and multidimensional and flawed; but readers also see how Marguerite overcomes this difficult and alienating episode of her life.
However, the work's complexity is a gradual revelation. The rape must be read within the context of the entire work, from the stammer of the opening scene, to the elegant Mrs. Flowers who restores Marguerite's confidence in her own voice, to the book's closing affirmation of the forgiving power of love and faith. Conversely, all of these moments should be understood against the ravaging of rape.
Marguerite's story is emblematic of the historic struggle of an entire people and, by extension, any person or group of people. The autobiography moves from survival to celebration of life, and students who are permitted to witness Marguerite's suffering and ascendancy might gain in the nurturing of their own potential for compassion, optimism and courage....
If parents are concerned about anything, it should be the paucity of assigned readings in the junior high and high school classrooms, and the quality of the classroom teaching approach for this (and any other) worthwhile book.... Caged Bird establishes oppositions of place and time: Stamps, Arkansas vs. St. Louis and San Francisco; the 1930s of the book's opening vs. the slave origins of Jim Crow, which complicate images related to certain cultural aspects of African-American life including oral story traditions, traditional religious beliefs and practices, ideas regarding discipline and displays of affection, and other materials which bring richness and complexity to the book, but that, without clarification, can invite misapprehension. For example, when Marguerite smashes Mrs. Cullinan' s best pieces of "china from Virginia" by "accident," the scene is informative when supported by its parallels in traditional African-American folklore, by information regarding the significance of naming in traditional society, and the cultural significance of the slave state practice of depriving Africans of their true names and cultural past. The scene, though funny, should not be treated as mere comic relief, or as a meaningless act of revenge. Mrs. Cullinan, in insisting upon "re-naming" Marguerite Mary, is carrying forward that enslaving technique designed to subvert identity; she is testing what she believes is her prerogative as a white person—to establish who a black person will be, to call a black person by any name she chooses. She is "shock[ed] into recognition of [Marguerite's] personhood" ([as Angelou writes in] Black Women Writers). She learns that her name game is a very dangerous power play that carries with it a serious risk.
With sufficient grounding, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can provide the kinds of insights into American history and culture, its values, practices, beliefs, lifestyles, and its seeming contradictions that inspired James Baldwin to describe the work, on its cover, as one that "liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity," and as "... a Biblical study of life in the midst of death." A book that has the potential to liberate the reader into life is one that deserves our intelligent consideration, not rash judgements made from narrow fearfulness. Such a work will not "teach students a lesson." It will demand an energetic, participatory reading. It will demand their seriousness. With the appropriate effort, this literary experience can assist readers of any racial or economic group in meeting their own, often unarticulated doubts, questions, fears, and perhaps assist in their own search for dignity.
Source: Opal Moore, "Learning to Live" When the Bird Breaks from the Cage," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds. , 1993, pp. 306-16.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1799
As a songwriter, journalist, playwright, poet, fiction and screenwriter, Maya Angelou is often asked how she escaped her past. How does one grow up, Black and female, in the rural South of the thirties and forties without being crippled or hardened? Her immediate response [in an interview by Sheila Weller for Intellectual Digest] "How the hell do you know I did escape?" is subtly deceptive. The evidence of Angelou's creative accomplishments would indicate that she did escape; but a closer look reveals the human and artistic complexity of her awareness. For the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is not an exorcism of or escape from the past, but a transmutation of that past. The almost novelistic clarity of Caged Bird results from the artistic tension between Angelou's recollected self and her authorial consciousness. Implicit in this dual awareness is the knowledge that events are significant not merely in themselves, but also because they have been transcended.
Angelou takes her title from Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy." Dunbar's caged bird sings from the frustration of imprisonment; its song is a prayer. Angelou's caged bird sings also from frustration, but in doing so, discovers that the song transforms the cage from a prison that denies selfhood to a vehicle for self-realization. The cage is a metaphor for roles which, because they have become institutionalized and static, do not facilitate interrelationship, but impose patterns of behavior which deny true identity.
In Caged Bird Angelou describes her efforts to adapt to the role of a young Black girl, the painfully humorous failures, and the gradual realization of how to transcend the restrictions. At a very early age, the child Angelou, Marguerite Johnson, is an intensely self-conscious child; she feels that her true self is obscured. The autobiography opens with an episode in which Marguerite must recite a poem beginning, "What you looking at me for?" As she struggles for her lines in the Easter morning church service, she is conscious of her dual self, which is the constant subject of her fantasies. Beneath the ugly disguise—the lavender dress cut-down from a white woman's throwaway, the skinny legs, broad feet, nappy hair, and teeth with a space between—was the real Marguerite Johnson, a sweet little white girl with long blond hair, "everybody's dream of what was right with the world." She mixes elements of fairy tale and Easter story to imagine that a cruel fairy stepmother had changed her from her true self to her present condition. And she relishes the recognition scene in which people will say, "'Marguerite (sometimes it was "dear Marguerite"), forgive us, please, we didn't know who you were,' and [she] would answer generously, 'No, you couldn't have known. Of course I forgive you.'" This introductory episode is emblematic of the child's perspective. She is in a cage which conceals and denies her true nature, and she is aware of her displacement. Someone whispers the forgotten lines and she completes the poem, which suggests transcendence:
What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay.
I just come to tell you it's Easter Day.
But for Marguerite there is no transcendence. After painful confinement in the humiliating situation, the pressure of her true self to escape takes on a physical urgency. She signals request to go to the toilet and starts up the aisle. But one of the children trips her and her utmost control is then effective only as far as the front porch. In her view the choice was between wetting her pants or dying of a "busted head," for what was denied proper vent would surely back up to her head and cause an explosion and "the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place." The physical violence of the destruction imagined is the child's equivalent for the emotional violence of self-repression.
In Marguerite's world, rigid laws govern every aspect of a child's life: there are laws for addressing adults by proper title, laws for speaking and more for not speaking, laws about cleanliness and obedience, and about performance in school and behavior in church. Although she respects her brother Bailey for his ability to evade some laws, Marguerite is an obedient child. Her transgressions come, not of willful disobedience, but from loss of control in confrontations in which she is physically overpowered by a larger force.
Much of the story of growing up as Marguerite Johnson is the story of learning to control natural responses. Not to laugh at funny incidents in church, not to express impatience when the guest preacher says too long a blessing and ruins the dinner, not to show felt fear, are part of preparation for life in a repressive society.
Although much of Marguerite's repression is related to her being a child, the caged condition affects almost everyone in her world. The customers in her grandmother's store were trapped in the cotton fields; no amount of hope and work could get them out. Bailey, for all his clever manipulations, was "locked in the enigma ... of inequality and hate." Her Uncle Willie's own body is his cage. Marguerite observes with the sensitivity of the adult Angelou looking back that he "must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame." When Marguerite catches Uncle Willie pretending not to be crippled before some out-of-town visitors, she finds the common condition of being caged and the desire to escape ground for sympathy. "I understood and felt closer to him in that moment than ever before or since."
Even the indomitable grandmother, Anne Henderson, rises each morning with the consciousness of a caged animal. She prays, "Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow, and help me to put a bridle on my tongue." But it is from her that Marguerite begins to learn how to survive in the cage. Angelou recalls a particular incident that happened when she was about ten years old in which she began to realize her grandmother's triumph. Momma, as Marguerite calls her, has come onto the porch to admire a design that Marguerite had raked in the yard. At the approach of some troublesome "powhitetrash" children, Momma sends Marguerite inside where she cowers behind the screen door. Momma stands solidly on the porch humming a hymn. The impudent children tease, mimic, and insult the older, respectable woman who, by any measure that Marguerite can think of, is their superior. As Marguerite watches and suffers humiliation for her grandmother, she wants to scream at the girls and throw lye on them, but she realizes that she is "as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside are confined to their roles." Throughout the performance, Momma stands humming so softly that Marguerite knows she is humming only because her apron strings vibrate. After the children leave, Momma comes inside and Marguerite sees that she is beautiful; her face is radiant. As Momma hums "Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down," Marguerite realizes that whatever the contest had been, Momma had won. Marguerite goes back to her raking and makes a huge heart design with little hearts inside growing smaller toward the center, and draws an arrow piercing through all the hearts to the smallest one. Then she brings Momma to see. In essence she is using the design to organize feelings she could not otherwise order or express, just as Momma has used the song to organize her thoughts and feelings beyond the range of the children's taunts. She triumphs not only in spite of her restrictions, but because of them. It is because, as a Black woman, she must maintain the role of respect toward the white children that she discovers another vehicle for her true emotions. She has used her cage creatively to transcend it.
The same principle works for a group as well as for an individual. What Maya Angelou had understood intuitively or subconsciously as a ten-year-old comes to the level of conscious realization after her eighth-grade graduation. Marguerite's graduation ceremony begins in an aura of magic, but just after the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, the point at which they normally would have sung the song they considered to be the Negro national anthem, the principal nervously signals the students to be seated. Then he introduces as commencement speaker a white politician who is on his way to another engagement and must speak out of order so that he can leave. His speech and the suppression of feeling his mere presence entails are humiliating reminders to the students of the restrictive white world in which they live. He talks of plans for an artist to teach at Central High, the white school, and of new microscopes and equipment for the Chemistry labs at Central. For Lafayette County Training School he promises the "only colored paved playing field in that part of Arkansas" and some equipment for the home economics building and the workshop. The implications of his talk are crushing to the graduates. For Marguerite the occasion is ruined; she remembers that
Graduation, the hush-hush magic time of frills and gifts and congratulations and diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called. The accomplishment was nothing. The meticulous maps, drawn in three colors of ink, learning and spelling decasyllabic words, memorizing the whole of The Rape of Lucrece—it was for nothing. Donleavy had exposed us.
We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.
The white politician rushes off to his next engagement, leaving a gloom over the ceremony. One student recites "Invictus"—"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul"—but now it is a farce. As Henry Reed, the valedictorian, gives his address, Marguerite wonders that he could go on. But at the end, Henry turns to the graduates and begins to sing the song omitted earlier, the Negro national anthem. The students, parents and visitors respond to the familiar song—their own song, and as they sing, "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered," the separate, isolated individuals become a community with a common soul:
We were on top again. As always again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940. I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.
Source: Myra K. McMurry, "Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird," in South Atlantic Bulletin, No. 2, May 1976, pp. 106-11.
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