Maya Angelou

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Myra K. McMurry (essay date May 1976)

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SOURCE: McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird.South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (May 1976): 106–11.

[In the following essay, McMurry discusses the metaphor of the cage in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

As a songwriter, journalist, playwright, poet, fiction and screen-writer, 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, “How the hell do you know I did escape?”1 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” (p. 1). She mixes elements of fairy tale and Easter story to imagine that a cruel fairy step-mother 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.’”2 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 its 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” (p. 3). 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” (p. 168). 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” (p. 11).

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” (p. 5). 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” (p. 25). 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.

(p. 152)

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 depts 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.

(p. 156)

Maya Angelou abstracts from this incident that “we [the Negro race] survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers)” (p. 156). Art organizes consciousness; it brings people together with a sense of shared experience, and a sympathy of feeling. It provides a focal point that gives unified structure to emotional response. In this sense even a prize fighter becomes an artist, as when people gather at the store to listen to the radio broadcast of a Joe Louis fight. Joe Louis becomes symbolic of their repressed selves; his victory, limited and defined by the boxing ring, is nonetheless a spiritual victory for all Blacks. Like Marguerite's finally triumphant graduation, it is a victory, the significance of which largely depends on the sense of limitation overcome. Louis is simultaneously an oppressed man and “the strongest man in the world,” and the full import of his achievement in winning the heavyweight championship lies in the context of the restrictions he overcame.

The same role that may be destructive to selfhood can, when played creatively, be transformed to a role that enhances self. The artist is able to do what the con men friends of Daddy Clidell do. They find a mark, someone who has obvious prejudices, and use these prejudices against him. Similarly the artist uses the bitter reality of his experience to produce a vehicle for essential human values. The artist achieves the same victory as the hero of the Black American ghettos, whom Maya Angelou describes as “that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast” (p. 190). The artist also achieves a victory over reality; he too is able to take crumbs and “by ingenuity and courage” make a feast.

When Maya Angelou speaks of “survival with style” and attributes survival to the work of artists, she is talking about a function of art similar to that described by Ralph Ellison. Speaking of his own early discovery of the role of art, he calls it “a mode of humanizing reality and of evoking a feeling of being at home in the world. It is something which the artist shares with the group,” and he describes how he and his friends yearned “to make any-and-everything of quality Negro-American; to appropriate it, possess it, re-create it in our own group and individual images. … [We] recognized and were proud of our group's own style wherever we discerned it—in jazzmen and prize fighters, ballplayers and tap dancers; in gesture, inflection, intonation, timbre and phrasing. Indeed, in all those nuances of expression and attitude which reveal a culture. We did not fully understand the cost of that style but we recognized within it an affirmation of life beyond all question of our difficulties as Negroes.”3

Such an affirmation of life, a humanizing of reality, is Maya Angelou's answer to the question of how a Black girl can grow up in a repressive system without being maimed by it. Art protects the human values of compassion, love, and innocence, and makes the freedom for the self-realization necessary for real survival. Her answer, like Ellison's, skirts the reformer's question: is “the cost of that style” too high? In this sense she and Ellison are religious writers rather than social ones, for their ultimate concern is self-transcendence. It is unlikely that either would deny the practical value of the past twenty years' progress toward attainment of Negroes' full citizenship in America. But ultimately, as artists, their concern is with the humanity which must survive, and even assimilate into its own creative potential, such restrictions as these writers have encountered. For if this humanity cannot survive restriction, then it will itself become assimilated to the roles imposed upon it.

Notes

  1. Quoted in an interview by Sheila Weller, “Work in Progress/Maya Angelou,” Intellectual Digest, June, 1973.

  2. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 2. Hereafter page numbers will be cited in the text.

    Editor's note: The second volume of the autobiography, Gather Together in My Name (New York: Random House, 1974), was not available until after this essay was completed and submitted for publication.

  3. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), p. xvii.

Introduction

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou

(Born as Marguerite Johnson) American novelist, memoirist, poet, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Angelou's novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) through 2000. See also Maya Angelou Criticism.

Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African-American literature, Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a volume of autobiography which details her encounters with Southern racism and her prepubescent rape by her mother's lover. Her literary works—particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—have generated considerable critical and popular interest in part because of their depiction of Angelou's triumph over formidable social obstacles and her struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance. She has since published five additional volumes of autobiography: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970.

Biographical Information

Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father Bailey was a doorkeeper and naval dietician; her mother Vivian was a nurse and realtor. Angelou's family lived in Missouri, Arkansas, and California during her childhood. Angelou attended public schools and studied music, dance, and drama privately. From 1954 to 1955, she appeared in a twenty-two nation tour of the musical Porgy and Bess that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Angelou moved to New York to pursue her acting career and performed in several off-Broadway plays including Calypso Heatwave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1960. In 1960, she accepted a position as an assistant administrator in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Africa. Angelou taught and performed in several plays at the university before returning to the U.S. in 1966. In 1970, Angelou published her first book, the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which focuses on her struggles throughout her formative years and concludes with the birth of her son, Guy, in 1945. In addition to publishing, Angelou has continued to produce, direct, and act in stage productions. In 1974 she directed the film All Day Long and, in 1988, directed the film Down in the Delta. Angelou has held teaching positions at several universities, including the University of California and the University of Kansas. She holds honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University. Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971); a Tony award nomination for best supporting actress in a 1977 production of Roots; and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1992. In 1993 Angelou performed a reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Plot and Major Characters

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles Angelou's life up to age sixteen, providing a child's perspective on the often perplexing and repressive adult world. The work contains a gruesome account of how the eight-year-old Angelou—known as Marguerite Johnson in her childhood—was raped by Mr. Freedman, her mother's lover. Angelou refused to speak for five years following the attack, believing that she had killed her assailant—who was subsequently murdered by her uncles—simply by speaking his name. After her mother moved the family to San Francisco in 1940, Angelou held a job as the first female African-American streetcar conductor while she attended high school. Angelou described herself as “a too big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings concludes with Angelou struggling as a single, teen-aged mother to nurture and protect her newborn son, Guy. Angelou wrote the book, which is the first volume in a series of autobiographies, after friends suggested that she write about her childhood. Angelou spent much of her youth in rural, segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where her pious grandmother ran a general store, and St. Louis, Missouri, where her mother lived. The sense of community and order that Angelou experiences under the tutelage of her Grandmother Henderson in Stamps stands in sharp contrast to the urban, cosmopolitan landscape of St. Louis. Though St. Louis offers opportunity and excitement in many forms, it also is where Angelou is raped, and where social rules and restrictions are ignored or nonexistent. Angelou is cared for in St. Louis, but the noisy city is filled with bustling people, taverns, gambling, and a lifestyle very different from the one in Stamps. In addition to creating a trenchant account of a girl's coming-of-age, Angelou's autobiography also affords insights into the social and political tensions that pervaded much of America during the 1930s.

Major Themes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates many of the dominant conventions of the autobiography genre. The work has a chronological structure, utilizes first-person narration, and is focused on personal development and enrichment. However, the book also embraces characteristics from the fiction genre, including dialogue and vivid, sensory descriptions. Readers have also viewed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a bildungsroman, the story of a young girl's growth and maturation. The book follows Angelou's search for identity and her struggle with sexual abuse, racism, and self-acceptance. The story is dominated by strong African-American women—Angelou's enterprising and pious grandmother, “momma”; the cultured and proud Mrs. Flowers; and Angelou's resourceful and vivacious mother. As Angelou is shuttled between homes, rootlessness and transformation emerge as dominant motifs in the narrative. Critics have often focused on the correlation between language, speech, and identity in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, evidenced by Angelou's suppression and eventual recovery of her own voice. Angelou's recovery from the trauma following her rape signaled her growing sense of self-acceptance and her discovery of her poetic voice.

Critical Reception

Considered the strongest of Angelou's autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has garnered critical and commercial success, making Angelou a recognized name in contemporary American literature. Reviewers have praised Angelou's dynamic prose style, poignant humor, and illumination of the African-American consciousness through her portrayal of her own personal experiences. Yet a few educators have asserted that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is inappropriate for children due to Angelou's frank depiction of rape, racism, and teen pregnancy, causing the book to be banned in several school libraries. A number of commentators have placed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings within the tradition of African-American autobiographies, including Richard Wright's Black Boy, Nikki Giovanni's Gemini, and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. Moreover, Angelou's autobiographical work has been perceived as a logical progression from the work of prominent nineteenth-century African-American authors such as Frederick Douglass. Angelou's five subsequent volumes of autobiography have generally been considered inferior, with critics citing their lack of moral complexity and failure to generate empathy or universal appeal.

Liliane K. Arensberg (essay date December 1976)

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SOURCE: Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.CLA Journal 20, no. 2 (December 1976): 273–91.

[In the following essay, Arensberg asserts that despite the often witty tone of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the primary theme of the narrative is death.]

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that's walked
A song that's spoke
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.

—Maya Angelou

In 1970, at a time when most blacks and a growing number of liberal whites affirmed the ad-campaign motto that “Black is Beautiful,” Maya Angelou's autobiography was published. An un-beautiful, awkward, rather morose, dreamy, and “too-big Negro girl,” young Maya Angelou seems an unlikely heroine. Neither the pretty and radiant prom queen of her all-black high school, like Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi, nor the acknowledged genius of her doting family like Nikki Giovanni in Gemini, the child Angelou writes of is unadmired, unenvied, uncoddled as she makes her precarious way (on “broad feet,” she reminds us) into the world.

Spanning the first sixteen years of her life, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings opens with Maya Angelou's1 arrival, at the green age of three, in dusty Stamps, Arkansas. Her parents' marriage dissolved, Maya and her older brother, Bailey, have been sent across country from their parents' home in Long Beach, California, to Momma's, their paternal grandmother's in Stamps. After five years of chores, books, fantasies and escapades with Bailey, Maya rejoins her mother in teeming, gray St. Louis. There she is raped, at eight, by her mother's lover, who in retaliation is murdered by her uncles. A guilt-ridden, terrified and bewildered “woman,” Maya is again sent to Stamps. Upon her graduation from Lafayette County Training School, at fourteen Maya rejoins her mother, now living in San Francisco. She spends part of one summer at a trailer camp in Southern California with her father and his lover, Dolores. When returning with him from a jaunt into Mexico, Maya is stabbed in a quarrel with Dolores. Fearing another murderous reprisal, Maya is unwilling to return to any of her homes. Instead, she seeks refuge in a car junkyard. There “a collage of Negro, Mexican and white” youths initiate her into a redeeming vision of universal brotherhood—one which Malcolm X could only discover thousands of miles from the United States in Mecca. She returns to San Francisco, a sobered and self-possessed young woman, challenges the racial bar to be hired as the town's first black female streetcar conductor. At the end of the book Maya becomes mother to an illegitimate son, the offspring of her “immaculate pregnancy.”

This brief sketch, though excluding some very crucial personalities and episodes in her youth, emphasizes the rootlessness of Maya Angelou's early years. Angelou herself underscores this pattern of mobility in the opening phrase of her introduction:

“What are you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay. …”(2)

Indeed, geographic movement and temporary residence become formative aspects of her growing identity—equal in importance to experiences and relationships more commonly regarded as instrumental in forming the adult self. Appropriately, this poetic phrase becomes the young girl's motto or “shield” (p. 58) as Angelou calls it; Maya's means of proclaiming her isolation while defending against its infringement.

Shuttled between temporary homes and transient allegiances, Maya necessarily develops a stoic flexibility that becomes not only her “shield,” but, more importantly, her characteristic means of dealing with the world. This flexibility is both blessing and curse: it enables her to adapt to various and changing environments, but it also keeps her forever threatened with loss or breakdown of her identity, as will presently be shown.

Indeed, Angelou's descriptions of her younger self seem almost entirely comprised of negatives: she is not wanted by her parents who hold over her the unspoken, but everpresent, threat of banishment; she is not beautiful or articulate like her brother, Bailey; she is too introverted and passive to assert herself on her environment; and, finally, she is a child in a world of enigmatic adults, and a black girl in a world created by and for the benefit of white men.

Furthermore, Maya's geographic worlds are each separate and self-contained. There is the world of Momma and her Store in Stamps, a puritan world of racial pride, religious devotion and acquiescence to one's worldly lot. And there is her “wild and beautiful” mother's world of pool halls, card sharks, fast dancing, fast talking and fast loving. Combining and transcending both is the private and portable world of Maya's imagination.

If there is one stable element in Angelou's youth it is this dependence on books. Kipling, Poe, Austen and Thackeray, Dunbar, Johnson, Hughes and Du Bois, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and Captain Marvel comics—all are equally precious to this lonely girl. Shakespeare, whose Sonnet 29 speaks to Maya's own social and emotional alienation, becomes her “first white love” (p. 11). As it does for Mary Antin, Anaïs Nin, and other female autobiographers, the public library becomes a quiet refuge from the chaos of her personal life. “I took out my first library card in St. Louis” (p. 64), she notes. And it is the public library she attempts to reach after her rape. Later, when running away from her father, she hides in a library. Indeed, when her life is in crisis, Maya characteristically escapes into the world of books.

As artifacts creating complete and meaningful universes, novels and their heroes become means by which Maya apprehends and judges her own bewildering world. Thus, Louise, her first girlfriend, reminds Maya of Jane Eyre; while Louise's mother, a domestic, Maya refers to as a governess. Mrs. Flowers, who introduces her to the magic of books, appeals to Maya because she was like “women in English novels who walked the moors … with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked the ‘heath’ and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen.” Curiously, it is this imaginative association with a distant, extinct and colonial world that makes Mrs. Flowers one who “made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself” (p. 79).

But the plight of lovers, madmen and poets is also Maya's problem. “The little princesses who were mistaken for maids, and the long-lost children mistaken for waifs,” writes Angelou, “became more real to me than our house, our mother, our school or Mr. Freeman” (p. 64). She is so consummately involved in the world of fantasy that even while being raped she “was sure any minute my mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would burst in the door and save me” (p. 65).

As in this quotation, the style by which Angelou describes her youth seems in counterpoint to the meaning of her narrative. It is written with a humor and wry wit that belies the personal and racial tragedies recorded. Since style is such a revealing element in all autobiographies, hers, especially, seems a conscious defense against the pain felt at evoking unpleasant memories. Moreover, wit operates as a formidable tool of the outraged adult; by mocking her enemies, Angelou overcomes them. Thus the gluttonous Reverend Thomas gets his just desserts at church when “throwing out phrases like home-run balls” loses his dentures in a scuffle with an over-zealous parishioner; the self-serving condescension of “fluttering” Mrs. Cullinan is ridiculed in a “tragic ballad” on “being white, fat, old and without children”; so, too, with the vanity and carelessness of her mother's “lipstick kisses” and her father's pompous “ers and errers” as he struts among Stamps' curious “down-home folk.” The adult writer's irony retaliates for the tongue-tied child's helpless pain.

The primary object, however, for Angelou's wit is herself. At times maudlin, always highly romantic and withdrawn, the young Maya is a person the older writer continually finds comic. Her idolatrous attachment to Bailey, her projections of fantasy upon reality, her reverence of her mother's stunning beauty, her strained attempts at sympathy for her self-enamoured father, her ingenuous attitude towards sexuality—these are but a few of the many and recurring aspects of her younger self the adult mocks.

The basic motive for writing one's autobiography, some believe, is to be understood, accepted, and loved. Angelou's willingness to ridicule former self-deceptions—more precisely, her former self—indicates the adult's fearlessness of the reader's judgments and her own critical stance towards herself. If Angelou's voice in re-creating her past is, therefore, ironic, it is however supremely controlled.

Nevertheless, despite the frankness of her narrative, Angelou avoids charting a direct path to her present self. Unlike Gemini, or Coming of Age in Mississippi, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Richard Wright's Black Boy—books in the same genre—Angelou's autobiography barely mentions the emergent woman within the girlish actor. Although Roy Pascal believes that “the autobiographer must refer us continually outwards and onwards, to the author himself and to the outcome of all the experiences,”3 Maya Angelou proves an exception to the rule.

Because Angelou's apprehension of experience and, indeed, herself, is essentially protean and existential, it is difficult to find one overriding identity of the adult self controlling her narrative. For what connects the adult and the child is less a linear development towards one distinct version of the self through career or philosophy, than an ever-changing multiplicity of possibilities. It is, in fact, her mutability, born of and affirmed through repeated movement, re-orientation and assimilation, that becomes Angelou's unique identity, her “identity theme,”4 to use Heinz Lichtenstein's more precise term. And if “work, in man, serves the maintenance of the individual's identity theme,”5 as Lichtenstein asserts, then the numerous careers of the adult Angelou—as dancer, prostitute, S.C.L.C. organizer, actor, poet, journalist and director—document her restlessness and resilience.

The unsettled life Angelou writes of in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings suggests a sense of self as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications. Thus death (and to some extent its companion concept, rebirth) is the term by which her “identity theme” operates. It is the metaphor of self which most directly and comprehensively communicates Angelou's identity. Moreover, the compulsion to repeat—a necessary instrument for the maintenance of any “identity theme”6—adds credence to the power of this major motif in Angelou's narrative. For, while the book's tone is predominantly witty, even light, resonating just below the surface of almost every page of Angelou's autobiography is the hidden, but everpresent, theme of death.

Angelou introduces I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with an anecdote. It is Easter Sunday at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Stamps. In celebration of the event, Momma has prepared a lavender taffeta dress for Maya. Believing it to be the most beautiful dress she has ever seen, Maya attributes to it magical properties: when worn, the dress will change Maya into the lovely, blond and blue-eyed “sweet little white girl” she actually believes herself to be.

But on Easter morning the dress reveals its depressing actuality: it is “a plain, ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway.” No Cinderella metamorphosis for Maya; instead, she lives in a “black dream” from which there is no respite. Unlike Christ, whose resurrection from death the church is celebrating, Maya cannot be reborn into another life. Overcome with the impossibility of her white fantasy, she escapes the church “peeing and crying” her way home. Maya must, indeed, lose control of her body and feelings. “It would probably run right back up to my head,” she believes, “and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place” (p. 3). By letting go of her fantasy—physically manifested by letting go of her bladder—Maya will not “die from a busted head.”

But, to “let go,” as Erik Erikson observes in Childhood and Society, “can turn into an inimical letting loose of destructive forces.”7 For, on this Easter Sunday Maya Angelou comprehends the futility of her wish to become “one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world.” “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl,” the adult writer concludes, “being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” Although she acknowledges the “unnecessary insult” of her own white fantasy, Angelou nevertheless puts the rust on the razor by her awareness of its insidious and ubiquitous presence.8

The form an autobiography takes is as revealing as its style and content. By placing this anecdote before the body of her narrative, Angelou asserts the paradigmatic importance of this particular event on her life. The atemporality of this experience (Maya's age remains unmentioned) coupled with the symbolic setting of Easter Sunday, suggests a personal myth deeply imbedded in Angelou's unconscious. One could, indeed, speculate that this event, introducing Maya Angelou's autobiography, is the “epiphanic moment” of her youth. For this short narrative presents the two dynamic operatives that circumscribe Angelou's self: her blackness and her outcast position.

Immediately striking in the anecdote is Maya's fantastic belief that “I was really white,” that “a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty” (p. 2) had tricked Maya of her Caucasian birthright. The fairy tale imagery employed to depict her creation is characteristic of the imaginative and impressionable girl, but the meaning of her tale cannot be overlooked. For, according to her schema, Maya's identity hinges on the whims of this fairy stepmother. If benevolent, she will transform Maya back into a pretty white girl; if she remains cruel, her spell over Maya will rest unbroken. When her dress does not produce the longed-for results, Maya is forced to contend with her blackness. But if she acknowledges this blackness, Maya must also acknowledge the existence of an arbitrary and malevolent force beyond her control which dictates her personal and racial identity.

As if mourning the death of the lovely white body beyond her possession, Maya describes her dress as sounding “like crepe paper on the back of hearses” (p. 1). Maya's body indeed becomes a symbolic hearse, containing not only her dead dream, but also a life whose very existence is threatened by the whims of a murderous white culture.

Angelou's highly personal confession of racial self-hatred is, unfortunately, not unique in Afro-American experience. Many works of contemporary black novelists and autobiographers—from Ralph Ellison and Imamu Baraka/LeRoi Jones to Richard Wright and Malcolm X—assert that invisibility, violence, alienation and death are part and parcel of growing up black in a white America. Likewise, psychological and sociological studies affirm that the first lesson in living taught the black child is how to ensure his/her survival. “The child must know,” write Grier and Cobbs, “that the white world is dangerous and that if he does not understand its rules it may kill him.”9 It is, then, pitifully understandable for Maya to wish herself white, since blackness forebodes annihilation.

Of equal significance in this introductory anecdote is Maya's belief that a stepmother has put her under this spell and then abandoned her. Her image of herself, for at least the first five years of life, is that of an orphan. Even later, when forced to recognize the existence of both her parents, she still clings to this orphan identity. Although acknowledging that Bailey, by dint of beauty and personality, is his parents' true son, she describes herself as “an orphan that they had picked up to provide Bailey with company” (p. 45).

While her father is as culpable as her mother in Maya's abandonment, it is nevertheless her mother whom Maya most yearns for and consequently blames. No real mother would “laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children” (p. 42), Maya reflects bitterly when first confronted with her mother's existence. No proper mother should let her child so profoundly mourn her passing as Maya has done.

I could cry anytime I wanted by picturing my mother (I didn't know what she looked like) lying in her coffin. Her hair, which was black, was spread out on a tiny little pillow and her body was covered with a sheet. The face was brown, like a big O, and since I couldn't fill in the features I printed MOTHER across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.

(p. 43)

Maya's image of her dead mother is deeply comforting to the child. The protective and nurturing maternal love Maya yearns for is symbolically created through her own tears: they “would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.” Consider then, the shock, the affront to her tottering self-image as well as to the image of her dead mother, when Maya receives her mother's first Christmas presents. Not only is her mother alive, but Maya herself must have been as good as dead during those early years of separation.

Adding insult to injury are the “awful presents” themselves: “a tea set—a teapot, four cups and saucers and tiny spoons—and a doll with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head” (p. 43). Symbols of a white world beyond Maya's reach or everyday experience, these toys not only evidence her mother's exotic and alien life, but also intimate questions of guilt and banishment no five-year-old can answer. The doll, especially, whose description so closely parallels Maya's own wished-for physical appearance, is an intolerable presence. It serves as an effigy of her mother by virtue of being female and her gift, as well as of Maya's impossible fantasy; Maya and Bailey “tore the stuffing out of the doll the day after Christmas” (p. 44).

Abandonment by a dead mother is forgivable, but abandonment by a living one evokes a rage so threatening that it must undergo massive repression. Thus, Maya becomes passive, inhibiting her deep anger and hostility. The fear of abandonment, even when living with her mother in St. Louis, never abates. “If we got on her nerves or if we were disobedient, she could always send us back to Stamps. The weight of appreciation and the threat, which was never spoken, of a return to Momma were burdens that clogged my childish wits into impassivity. I was called Old Lady and chided for moving and talking like winter's molasses” (p. 57). Maya's fears come true; after her rape she is again banished to Stamps.

Nevertheless, Maya repeatedly protests fondness for her mother. Beautiful, honest, gay and tough, Vivian Baxter leaves her daughter awe-struck. “I could never put my finger on her realness,” Angelou writes, “She was so pretty and so quick that … I thought she looked like the Virgin Mary” (p. 57). So much is Vivian Baxter idealized that Angelou capitalizes “Mother” in her narrative, while “father” remains in lower-case. But Vivian Baxter is diametrically opposite to the brown-faced nurturing mother Maya had mourned and yearned for in Stamps. Her beauty and animation keep Maya suspicious of their consanguinity.

Maya's ambivalence about her mother—her fear and love, her rage and need for her, her isolation and her desire for closeness—is never fully resolved. Although she insists verbally on this love, her affect reveals sullenness, resignation, depression and overwhelming passivity. Maya's aggression against her mother is well-defended, and thus specific suggestions of hostility towards her are rare. But the proliferating references to death in Angelou's autobiography provide another route for releasing Maya's (and Angelou's) repressed violent aggression.

This aspect of death's overdetermined significance is important but by no means the only level of reference; at least five sub-themes, each bearing on the major theme of death, emerge in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first is the most obvious: the realistic fear of whites which Momma and the Southern black community have drummed into Maya. Momma, Angelou writes, “didn't cotton to the idea that white-folks could be talked to at all without risking one's life” (p. 39). The white lynchers whom Uncle Willie hides from in the vegetable bin, the taunting “powhitetrash” girls, the bloated dead man fished out of the river—all are daily proof of a predatory white world. This fact leads Angelou to a bitter conclusion: “the Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose” (p. 95).

The daily fear of murder at the hands of whites leads the Southern black community into the haven of religion and the belief of a blessed reward in “the far off bye and bye.” Thus, Southern black religion celebrates death, since life itself is too precarious to pin one's hopes on. Even at the revival meeting attended by members from a variety of Southern churches, death continually asserts its presence: the cardboard fans flourished by the worshippers advertise Texarkana's largest Negro funeral parlor. “People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction,” comments Angelou, “considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all” (p. 101).

Balancing this image of a white world threatening her own and her people's lives, is Maya's revenge fantasy of murdering the offending whites. When Dentist Lincoln refuses to treat her toothache, Maya creates an elaborate revery wherein a Herculean Momma has the cowering dentist pleading for his life: “Yes, ma'am. Thank you for not killing me. Thank you, Mrs. Henderson” (p. 162).

Far and away the most dramatic instance of this revenge theme occurs the day of Maya's graduation from Lafayette County Training School. Unable to stand the invited white speaker's “dead words” which systematically destroy the dreams and aspirations of the black children and their elders Maya wills them all dead.

Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds and that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that Harriet Tubman had been killed by that blow on her head and Christopher Columbus had drowned in the Santa Maria.


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. 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 whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.

(pp. 152–53)

Operating on a more personal level is the violence Maya witnesses within the members of her own family. Angelou introduces her Uncle Willie by describing his method of pushing her and Bailey onto the Store's red heater if they neglect their lessons. Momma, too, does not spare the rod when she believes her grandchildren remiss in hygiene, schooling, manners or piety. But this corporal punishment—executed more in love than in rage—is small matter, indeed, when compared to the fundamental brutality of Maya's maternal relations in St. Louis. Her maternal grandfather and uncles revel in their own “meanness”: “They beat up whites and Blacks with the same abandon” (p. 56). Even her mother is not immune from her family's violent streak. Once, in retaliation for being cursed, Vivian Baxter, with the aid of her brothers, “crashed the man's head with a policemen's billy enough to leave him just this side of death” (p. 55). Later Vivian Baxter, again in response to an insult, shoots the partner of her gambling casino.

As the climax of this familial violence, Mr. Freeman's rape is performed under the threat of death: “If you scream, I'm gonna kill you. And if you tell, I'm gonna kill Bailey” (p. 65). But her family's response to Maya's subsequent withdrawal into silent passivity is itself another form of violence: “For a while I was punished for being so uppity that I wouldn't speak; and then came the thrashings, given by any relative who felt himself offended” (p. 73). The rape itself is the most flagrant example of her maternal family's characteristic combination of aggression and neglect. Not only is Mr. Freeman her mother's lover, but mother and children all live under his roof. Ruthless in her quest for material comfort, Vivian Baxter is not above taking full advantage of Freeman's obvious adoration. Already at eight a sagacious observer, Maya responds with mixed emotions to her mother's relationship with Freeman. “I felt sorry for Mr. Freeman. I felt as sorry for him as I had felt for a litter of helpless pigs born in our backyard sty in Arkansas. We fattened the pigs all year long for the slaughter on the first good frost, and even as I suffered for the cute little wiggly things, I knew how much I was going to enjoy the fresh sausage and hog's headcheese they could give me only with their deaths” (p. 60).

Of course, Maya's sympathy for Freeman has another cause: she feels as neglected by Vivian Baxter as he does. And while Freeman's motives in the earlier masturbatory episodes and even the rape itself probably stem as much from revenge against the mother as easy access to the daughter, Maya's own need for attention and physical closeness cannot be overlooked. After the first of these episodes, Angelou writes, “came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he'd never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last” (p. 61). Pitifully unable to distinguish lust from paternal love (never having experienced the latter), Maya projects onto Freeman this physical warmth missing from all her relationships with adults. “I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement of his big arms,” Angelou recalls. “Before, my world had been Bailey, food, Momma, the Store, reading books and Uncle Willie. Now, for the first time, it included physical contact” (p. 62).

Freeman's subsequent murder (he was kicked to death by her uncles) evokes overwhelming guilt in Maya. At Freeman's trial Maya gives false testimony about their encounters, and now “a man was dead because I lied” (p. 72). Associating her spoken word with death, Maya stops talking.

Maya as bearer of death is the fourth dimension of death and violence in Angelou's narrative. In disgrace with God because “I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape,” Maya conceives herself to be the cursed instrument of violent death. This conviction is part of the pattern of self-rejection and inferiority well-established within Maya's psyche; it lies but one small step beyond a personal sense of inherent gross repulsiveness. Introjecting this repulsiveness—which she believes everyone except Bailey feels towards her—Maya generalizes on her role in Freeman's death and perceives herself as death's tool. “The only thing I could do,” she reasons, “was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I'd never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended” (p. 73).

In this psychic state Maya conceives of her own body mythically as a Pandora's Box containing a degeneracy so virulent that, if left uncontrolled, will contaminate the universe. So profound is her hatred and rage, she recalls, that “I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I'd hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn't it flood the world and all the innocent people” (p. 72). As a vessel containing a death-inducing fluid, Maya must control the physical force within her with all the strength and will she can muster. Thus, her resolve not to speak, and her consequent impassivity become outward manifestations of an inner struggle no less cosmic than Jacob and the Angel's. This same struggle is the one which opens Angelou's autobiography.

Upon her return to Stamps, Maya projects her own death-like inertness on the whole town. It is described as “exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness. … Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened” (p. 74).

An outcast in a community of outcasts, Maya avoids emotional ties with others. In fact, for six years, until Louise befriends her, Maya is without an intimate friend her own age. It is not surprising, then, that when Mrs. Bertha Flowers takes an active interest in her, Maya describes her as “the lady who threw me my first life line” (p. 77). Nor is it surprising that Maya turns to the safety of books for the exciting relationships shunned in real life.

Yet, this pathological paralysis which inhibits Maya's ability to express her resentment and anger also opens the door to a gratification of her desire for a union with her mother. For Maya's passivity and obsession with death serve more than one unconscious need. While keeping her emotionally isolated from, and invulnerable to, others, they also gratify her regressive strivings for her mother.

Indeed, Maya's decision to lie at Freeman's trial was motivated not simply by mortal terror of her maternal clan and by fear of revealing her own complicity in the sexual episodes, but more importantly by her desire for her mother's warmth and approving love.

I couldn't say yes and 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. …


… I looked at his heavy face trying to look as if he would have liked me to say No. I said No.


The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn't get air. … Our lawyer brought me off the stand and to my mother's arms. The fact that I had arrived at my desired destination by lies made it less appealing to me.

(pp. 70–71)

When Maya's attempts at physical closeness with her mother—pathetically by way of Mr. Freeman's arms and her lie—prove unsuccessful, she reverts to the most primitive of all longings: to die. If death is “the condition in which identification with mother can be achieved,” as Barchelon and Kovel postulate about Huckleberry Finn, then its “ultimate expression is passivity, of doing nothing.” Thus, “in the unconscious, death can be represented as that dissolution of self necessary for reunion with the source of life, as a recapitulation of that self-less time in the womb.”10 Consequently, for a major portion of her autobiography, Maya Angelou evokes the notion of her willful dissolution—still another dimension in her book of the death-motif.

Thanatos, or the unconscious drive toward dissolution and death, exists in Angelou's narrative before the crucial episode of her rape and courtroom lie. Indeed, it first emerges when Maya is confronted with recognizing the existence of her parents. Deeply attached to the image of her dead mother, her indecision about joining the living one in St. Louis evokes the thought of suicide. “Should I go with father? Should I throw myself into the pond, and not being able to swim, join the body of L. C., the boy who had drowned last summer?” (pp. 46–47). Even her choice of method—death by water—calls up her yearning for a return to the source of all life, the mother.

Although her second residence in Stamps includes episodes wherein Maya considers her own death, these are generally handled more with humor than pathos. At any rate, the very abundance of references to her own extinction, regardless of Angelou's tone, is evidence of this theme's powerful hold over both the actor's and the author's unconscious. Three examples out of many will suffice. When cautioned by Mrs. Flowers to handle her books well, Maya can only imagine the most extreme punishment if she proves negligent: “Death would be too kind and brief” (p. 82). Later, having survived to see the day of her graduation, Angelou relates that “somewhere in my fatalism I had expected to die, accidentally, and never have the chance to walk up the stairs in the auditorium and gracefully receive my hard-earned diploma. Out of God's merciful bosom I had won reprieve” (p. 147). Again, referring to the overwhelming sway books had over hers and Bailey's imaginations, Angelou writes that “ever since we read The Fall of the House of Usher, we had made a pact that neither of us would allow the other to be buried without making ‘absolutely, positively sure’ (his favorite phrase) that the person was dead” (p. 166).

Included in this part of her experience is Angelou's first conscious cognizance of her own mortality. So crucial an aspect of her identity is this awareness, that Angelou devotes an entire chapter to it. Beneath the mock-Gothic melodrama of Mrs. Taylor's funeral and her posthumous nocturnal returns to visit her husband (neither of whom are mentioned again in the book), exists Maya's real and growing apprehension of her own mortal state: “I had never considered before that dying, death, dead, passed away, were words and phrases that might be even faintly connected with me” (p. 135).

This deathward drift is arrested and altered when Maya moves to California. Just as Stamps reflects Maya's impassivity, so does San Francisco evoke her resiliency; while Stamps projects the worst side of Maya, so San Francisco affirms the best: “The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness” (p. 180). In San Francisco Maya's own identity happily merges with her environs. “In San Francisco, for the first time, I perceived myself as part of something,” writes Angelou. “I identified … with the times and the city. … The undertone of fear that San Francisco would be bombed which was abetted by weekly air raid warnings, and civil defense drills in school, heightened my sense of belonging. Hadn't I, always, but ever and ever, thought that life was just one great risk for the living?” (p. 179).

Death in its many manifestations is, indeed, pivotal to Maya Angelou's sense of self. But the life instinct, Eros, co-exists with Thanatos in her autobiography, as it does in life. In fact, the tension between Maya's quest for a positive, life-affirming identity and her obsession with annihilation provide the unconscious dynamism affecting all aspects of her narrative, and endowing it with power and conviction. Thus, the ultimate challenge to death is Maya's own active assertion of self and her willingness to face annihilation and overcome it. The remainder of Angelou's autobiography addresses itself to this end.

It is not until she visits Mexico with her father that Maya tenaciously struggles for her life. Leaving Maya to her own wits in a Mexican cantina, Bailey Johnson, Sr., takes off with his Mexican lover. When he finally returns, intoxicated beyond help, Maya must drive them both home. Although she has never driven, Maya defies and masters the bucking Hudson.

The Hudson went crazy on the hill. It was rebelling and would have leaped over the side of the mountain, to all our destruction, in its attempt to unseat me had I relaxed control for a single second. The challenge was exhilarating. It was me, Marguerite, against the elemental opposition. As I twisted the steering wheel and forced the accelerator to the floor I was controlling Mexico, and might and aloneness and inexperienced youth and Bailey Johnson, Sr., and death and insecurity, and even gravity.

(pp. 202–03)

But, as in the incident of Freeman's rape, the fatal pattern of reversal again appears. Maya's temporary safety is followed by Dolores's stabbing. When, in order to save face, Johnson hides Maya at a friend's home rather than bring her to a hospital, Maya is again confronted with the specter of her own death. She survives the night, however, sleeping “as if my death wish had come true” (p. 212). But morning presents the inevitable questions: “What would I do? Did I have the nerve to commit suicide? If I jumped in the ocean wouldn't I come up all bloated like the man Bailey saw in Stamps?” (p. 212). Although she has evoked her childish alternative of death by water and its unconscious wish for a return to mother, this time Maya resolves to make it on her own.

The decision not to retreat to her mother's home becomes the turning-point in Maya Angelou's autobiography. “I could never succeed in shielding the gash in my side from her,” she argues. “And if I failed to hide the wound we were certain to experience another scene of violence. I thought of poor Mr. Freeman, and the guilt which lined my heart, even after all those years, was a nagging passenger in my mind” (p. 213). With this gesture, Maya not only triumphs over her regressive longing for death and mother, but also, by sparing her father and Dolores, overcomes her sense of herself as death's tool.

Employing the same simile she had earlier used to describe her mother—“She was like a pretty kite that floated just above my head” (p. 54)—Maya now describes herself as “a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for anchor” (p. 214). Put more plainly, Maya rises in her own estimation, incorporates the best of her mother and becomes her own guardian. It is only then that Maya is ready to return to the human fold.

The outcast children of the dead-car junkyard where she seeks refuge eliminate Maya's “familiar insecurity,” especially in relation to her mother. She learns “to drive … to curse and to dance” (p. 215), with the best of them. But of signal importance is that these children disprove the racial prejudice—and its concurrent death fantasies—of her earlier experiences.

After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life.

(p. 216)

That Angelou concludes her autobiography with the birth of her son is final evidence of the substantive power of death as metaphor of self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.11 Her body, which she had earlier described as not only ugly and awkward but also contaminated with a death-inducing power, brings forth a living child. But the vestiges of her former self-image are not so easily excised. When her mother brings to Maya's bed her three-week-old baby, Maya is terror-stricken: “I was sure to roll over and crush out his life or break those fragile bones” (p. 245). But later, when her mother wakens her, the apprehensive Maya discovers her son safe: “Under the tent of blanket, which was poled by my elbow and forearm, the baby slept touching my side” (p. 246).

This final picture of Vivian Baxter as a confident and compassionate mother lovingly bent over her daughter's bed, evokes the brown, nurturing figure of Maya's childhood fantasy. By asserting her faith in Maya's instinctive, preserving motherhood, Vivian Baxter not only qualifies the book's implicit image of her as cruel stepmother, but also consummates Maya's growing sense of herself as an adult, life-giving woman.

When writing one's autobiography one's primary concern is the illumination of personal and historical identity while giving shape and meaning to the experiences out of which that identity has developed. Through the abyss of social and emotional death, Angelou emerges as a tenacious and vital individual. Indeed, in keeping with her death-and-rebirth fantasy, Maya Angelou is reborn: once, into a life-affirming identity recorded within the pages of her narrative, and again, when she re-creates that life as author of her autobiography. If one must enter a dark night of the soul in order to emerge radiant, then Maya Angelou's “terrible beauty” shines clear to the sky.

Notes

  1. In the autobiography Angelou calls herself Maya or Marguerite Johnson, her given name. But, to avoid undue confusion, I have limited myself to the writer's signature. I do distinguish the child from the writer, however, and refer to the child as “Maya” and to the adult as “Angelou.”

  2. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), p. 1. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  3. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1960), p. 163.

  4. Heinz Lichtenstein, “Identity and Sexuality: A Study of Their Interrelationship in Man,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9 (1961), 208.

  5. Ibid., p. 253.

  6. Ibid., p. 235.

  7. Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963), p. 251.

  8. All quotations referring to the anecdote are from pp. 1–3 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

  9. William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), p. 51.

  10. Jose Barchilon and Joel S. Kovel, “Huckleberry Finn: A Psychoanalytic Study,Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22 (1966), 785.

  11. Although the second volume of her autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, also contains the theme of death, it does not “open-up” the book the way it does her first. This supports (conveniently?) my contention that much of this theme is resolved in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. On the other hand, her book of verse, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, contains nineteen poems, out of a total thirty-eight, in which death is directly mentioned. Moreover, the theme of “mutability” echoes throughout her later works. One's “identity theme” is, indeed, irreversible.

Principal Works

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The Least of These (play) 1966

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (poetry) 1971

Georgia, Georgia (screenplay) 1972

All Day Long (screenplay) 1974

Gather Together in My Name (autobiography) 1974

Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (poetry) 1975

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (autobiography) 1976

And Still I Rise (poetry) 1978

The Heart of a Woman (autobiography) 1981

Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (poetry) 1983

All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (autobiography) 1986

Now Sheba Sings the Song (poetry) 1987

I Shall Not Be Moved (poetry) 1990

Life Doesn't Frighten Me (poetry) 1993

On the Pulse of the Morning (poetry) 1993

Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (essays) 1993

The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (poetry) 1994

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (juvenilia) 1994

Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (poetry) 1994

Soul Looks Back in Wonder (poetry) 1994

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (essays) 1997

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (autobiography) 2002

Christine Froula (essay date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.” Signs 11, no. 4 (summer 1986): 621–44.

[In the following essay, Froula considers the impact of female autobiographies—such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple—on literary tradition and modern culture.]

A still, small voice has warned me again to postpone the description of hysteria.1

[Freud to Fliess, January 1, 1896]

I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her.2

[Alice Walker's Celie]

In her speech before the London/National Society for Women's Service on January 21, 1931, Virginia Woolf figured the woman novelist as a fisherwoman who lets the hook of her imagination down into the depths “of the world that lies submerged in our unconscious being.” Feeling a violent jerk, she pulls the line up short, and the “imagination comes to the top in a state of fury”:

Good heavens she cries—how dare you interfere with me. … And I—that is the reason—have to reply, “My dear you were going altogether too far. Men would be shocked.” Calm yourself. … In fifty years I shall be able to use all this very queer knowledge that you are ready to bring me. But not now. You see I go on, trying to calm her, I cannot make use of what you tell me—about women's bodies for instance—their passions—and so on, because the conventions are still very strong. If I were to overcome the conventions I should need the courage of a hero, and I am not a hero. …


Very well says the imagination, dressing herself up again in her petticoat and skirts. … We will wait another fifty years. But it seems to me a pity.3

Woman's freedom to tell her stories—and indeed, as this fable shows, to know them fully herself—would come, Woolf went on to predict, once she is no longer the dependent daughter, wife, and servant. Given that condition, Woolf envisioned “a step upon the stair”: “You will hear somebody coming. You will open the door. And then—this at least is my guess—there will take place between you and some one else the most interesting, exciting, and important conversation that has ever been heard” (Pargiters, xliv).

But that was to be in “fifty years.” In 1931, Woolf still felt a silence even within all the writing by women that she knew—even, indeed, within her own. Woolf's fable of silences that go unheard within women's writing points to a violence that is all the more powerful for being nearly invisible, and it interprets women's silence in literary history as an effect of repression, not of absence. In this essay, I will explore the literary history implied by Woolf's fisherwoman image, reading it backward, through Homer and Freud, to elucidate the “conventions” that bound her imagination; and forward, to contemporary works by women that fulfill Woolf's “guess” that women would soon break a very significant silence. Drawing upon feminist analyses of Freud's discovery and rejection of the seduction theory of hysteria, I will argue that the relations of literary daughters and fathers resemble in some important ways the model developed by Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman to describe the family situations of incest victims: a dominating, authoritarian father; an absent, ill, or complicitous mother; and a daughter who, prohibited by her father from speaking about the abuse, is unable to sort out her contradictory feelings of love for her father and terror of him, of desire to end the abuse and fear that if she speaks she will destroy the family structure that is her only security.4 By aligning a paradigmatic father-daughter dialogue in Homer's Iliad with Freud's dialogue with the hysterics, we can grasp the outline of what I shall call the hysterical cultural script: the cultural text that dictates to males and females alike the necessity of silencing woman's speech when it threatens the father's power. This silencing insures that the cultural daughter remains a daughter, her power suppressed and muted; while the father, his power protected, makes culture and history in his own image. Yet, as the hysterics' speech cured their symptoms, so women, telling stories formerly repressed, have begun to realize the prediction of Woolf's fisherwoman. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) exemplify the breaking of women's forbidden stories into literary history—an event that reverberates far beyond their heroes' individual histories to reshape our sense of our cultural past and its possible future directions.

CULTURAL FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS: SOME INTERESTING CONVERSATIONS

What is the fisherwoman's story, the one that got away? The answer I wish to pursue begins with the earliest conversation between man and woman in our literary tradition, that between Helen and Priam in the Iliad, book 3. Although readers tend to remember the Helen of the Iliad as silent—beauty of body her only speech—the text reveals not Helen's silence but her silencing. As they stand upon the city wall gazing down at the battlefield, the Trojan king and patriarch Priam asks Helen to point out to him the Greek heroes whose famous names he knows. Her answer exceeds Priam's request:

                                                                                          “Revere you as I do,
I dread you, too, dear father. Painful death
would have been sweeter for me, on that day
I joined your son, and left my bridal chamber,
my brothers, my grown child, my childhood friends!
But no death came, though I have pined and wept.
Your question, now: yes, I can answer it:
that man is Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
lord of the plains of Argos, ever both
a good king and a formidable solider—
brother to the husband of a wanton …
                                                            or was that life a dream?”(5)

Helen first invokes her own fear of and reverence for Priam. But this daughterly homage to her cultural father only frames her expression of her longing for her former life and companions. Helen, however, is powerless to escape the male war economy that requires her presence to give meaning to its conflicts, and so she translates her desire for her old life into a death wish that expresses at once culturally induced masochism and the intensity of her resistance to her own entanglement in the warriors' plot.

Priam appears to reply only to the words that answer his query:

The old man gazed and mused and softly cried:
“O fortunate son of Atreus! Child of destiny,
O happy soul! How many sons of Akhaia
serve under you! In the old days once I went
into the vineyard country of Phrygia
and saw the Phrygian host on nimble ponies,
.....And they allotted me as their ally
my place among them when the Amazons
came down, those women who were fighting men;
but that host never equaled this,
the army of the keen-eyed men of Akhaia.”

[Iliad, 74]

Priam seems not to notice Helen's misery as he turns to imaginary competition with the admired and envied Agamemnon. What links his speech to Helen's, however, is the extraordinary fact that the occasion he invokes as his most memorable experience of troops arrayed for battle is a battle against the Amazons. That Amazons come to his mind suggests that, on some level, he has heard Helen's desires. Priam's speech recapitulates his conflict with Helen, and hers with Greek culture, as an archetypal conflict between male and female powers. Significantly, Priam does not say which of these forces triumphed. But in leaving the action suspended, he connects past with present, the Amazons' challenge with this moment's conflict between his desires and Helen's, who, merely in having desires that would interfere with her role as battle prize, becomes for Priam the Amazon.

What does it mean that Helen should become the Amazon in Priam's imagination? Page duBois and William Blake Tyrrell analyze the Amazon myth as a representation of female power that has escaped the bounds within which Greek culture, specifically the marriage structure, strives to contain it.6 The Amazon myth, Tyrrell writes, is about daughters, warriors, and marriage. It projects male fear that women will challenge their subordinate status in marriage and with it the rule of the father. In Varro's account of the mythology of Athens's origins, the female citizens of Athens were, under Cecrops, dispossessed of their social and political authority after they banded together to vote for Athena as their city's presiding deity and brought down Poseidon's jealous wrath: “‘They could no longer cast a vote, no new-born child would take the mother's name,’ … [and] they are no longer called Athenians but daughters of Athenians.”7 From the Greek woman's lifelong role of daughter, her deprivation of political, economic, and social power, the Amazon myth emerges as “the specter of daughters who refuse their destiny and fail to make the accepted transition through marriage to wife and motherhood” (Amazons, 65). Such unruly daughters threatened to be “rivals of men,” “opposed or antithetical to the male as father” (Amazons, 83). Becoming a rival in the male imagination, the daughter also becomes a warrior—as Helen does to Priam, as Clytemnestra does to Apollo when, in the Eumenides, he laments that Agamemnon was not cut down by an Amazon instead of by her, as Dido does to Aeneas in his premonitory conflation of her with Penthesilea in Aeneid 1. These allusions suggest that the Amazon figure, a figment of the male imagination, expresses male desire to contain the threat of a female uprising within the arena of the battlefield; that is, to transform the invisible threat of female revolt into a clear and present danger that males might then band together to combat in the regulated violence of war. In linking Helen with the Amazons, Priam dramatizes the threat that female desire poses to the male war culture predicated on its subjugation. Their conversation replicates the larger design of Homer's epic, which, being “his” story, not hers, turns the tale of a woman's abduction and silencing into the story of a ten-year war between two male cultures. Priam's battle with the Amazons remains suspended in his speech because that battle has not ended. But in this conversation, it is Priam, the cultural father, who triumphs, while Helen's story, by his refusal to hear it, becomes the repressed but discernible shadow of Priam's own.

Helen's exchange with Priam is one skirmish in her culture's war against the Amazons, and a subsequent conversation between Helen and Aphrodite depicts another battle in the form of a cultural daughter's seduction. Here, Helen opposes Aphrodite's demand that she join Paris in bed while the battle rages outside: “‘O immortal madness, / why do you have this craving to seduce me? / … Go take your place beside Alexandros! / … Be / unhappy for him, shield him, till at last / he marries you—or, as he will, enslaves you. / I shall not join him there!’” (Iliad, 81–82). Helen passionately and eloquently resists her cultural fate, but Homer's Olympian magic conquers her. Aphrodite silences Helen and enforces her role as object, not agent, of desire by threatening her: “Better not be so difficult. / … I can make hatred for you grow / amid both Trojans and Danaäns, / and if I do, you'll come to a bad end” (Iliad, 82).8 The male-authored goddess, embodying the sublimated social authority of Greek culture, forces Helen to relinquish control over her sexuality to the “higher” power of male culture and, like a complicitous mother, presses her to conform to its rule. Helen easily resists being “seduced,” angrily thrusting back upon Aphrodite the role of compliant wife/slave that the goddess recommends to her. But this scene makes no distinction between seduction and rape—between being “led astray” and being sexually violated—for Helen can resist sexual complicity only on pain of being cast out altogether from the social world, which is constructed upon marriage. She can be a faithful wife or a “wanton,” a “nightmare,” a “whore”; she can be a dutiful daughter or an unruly one. But she cannot act out her own desire as Menelaus and Paris, Agamemnon and Akhilleus, Khryses and Hektor, can theirs. Indeed, if wanton in Troy and wife in the bridal chamber are the only choices her culture allows her, she cannot choose even from these. Whereas Paris can propose to settle the dispute by single combat with Menelaus, or the Trojan elders, seeing Helen on the wall, can murmur “let her go [back to Greece] in the ships / and take her scourge from us” (Iliad, 73), there is never a question of Helen's deciding the conflict by choosing between the two men.9

Although not literally silenced by Aphrodite's metaphysical violence, Helen, surrendering her sexuality, is simultaneously subdued to her culture's dominant text of male desire. “Brother dear,” she tells Hektor,

dear to a whore, a nightmare of a woman!
That day my mother gave me to the world
I wish a hurricane blast had torn me away
to wild mountains, or into tumbling sea
to be washed under by a breaking wave,
before these evil days could come! …

[Iliad, 152]

Helen's will to escape the warriors' marriage plot here turns against the only object her culture permits: herself. She names herself from its lexicon for wayward daughters and passionately imagines death as her only possible freedom. Using the names her culture provides her, weighted with its judgments. Helen loses power even to name herself, her speech confined between the narrow bounds of patriarchal culture and death. That she imagines her death as an entering into the wild turbulence of nature allegorizes the radical opposition of male culture to female nature which the Greek marriage plot enforces: Helen, the Greeks' most exalted image of woman, is also a powerfully expressive subject who must, because of her power, be violently driven back into nature.10

Death failing, Helen fulfills her prescribed role by participating in her culture's metaphysical violence against herself: “You [Hektor] are the one afflicted most / by harlotry in me and by his madness, / our portion, all of misery, given by Zeus / that we might live in song for men to come” (Iliad, 153). She sacrifices herself upon the altar of patriarchal art, a willing victim who not only suffers but justifies her culture's violence. (Men too suffer the violence of the Greek marriage plot—Helen's “we” includes Hektor—but whereas Hektor resists Andromakhe's pleas and follows his desire for honor into battle, Helen's and Andromakhe's desires are entirely ineffectual.) If the poem, like the war, seems to glorify Helen, in fact she and all the female characters serve primarily to structure the dynamics of male desire in a culture that makes women the pawns of men's bonds with each other and the scapegoats for their broken allegiances. The poem's opening scene portrays woman's role in Greek culture as the silent object of male desire, not the speaker of her own. While Agamemnon and Akhilleus rage eloquently over their battle prizes Khryseis and Briseis, the women themselves do not speak at all. They are as interchangeable as their names make them sound, mere circulating tokens of male power and pride—as Akhilleus's apology to Agamemnon upon rejoining the battle confirms: “Agamemnon, was it better for us / in any way, when we were sore at heart, / to waste ourselves in strife over a girl? / If only Artemis had shot her down / among the ships on the day I made her mine, / after I took Lyrnessos!” (Iliad, 459).

The Iliad suggests that women's silence in culture is neither a natural nor an accidental phenomenon but a cultural achievement, indeed, a constitutive accomplishment of male culture. In Helen's conversations, Homer writes the silencing of woman into epic history as deliberate, strategic, and necessary—a crucial aspect of the complex struggle that is the epic enterprise. In Helen, the Iliad represents the subjugation of female desire to male rule by means of a continuum of violence, from physical abduction to the metaphysical violence that Greek culture exerts against woman's words and wishes. To a greater extent than we have yet realized, Homer's epic is about marriage, daughters, and warriors. It is about the Amazon.

The Iliad is an ancient text, and we have moved very far from the world that produced it—a fact often invoked to distance readers from the violence against women in which the poem participates. But if we set Helen's conversations next to a powerful analogue of our century, Sigmund Freud's dialogues with hysterics and with the phenomenon of hysteria, the paradigmatic force of her “abduction” into the cultural father's script becomes apparent. As the Iliad tells the story of a woman's abduction as a male war story, so Freud turned the hysterics' stories of sexual abuse into a tale to soothe a father's ear. And just as Priam's repressed fears seep into his speech in his allusion to the Amazons, so Freud's repression of the daughter's story generates symptomatic moments that “chatter through the fingertips” of his psychoanalytic theory.11

Freud's conversations with hysterical patients began in the 1880s. At first, Freud, unlike Priam, was able to hear his patients' stories, and he found that in every case, analysis elicited an account of sexual abuse suffered in childhood at the hands of a member of the patient's own family—almost always the father, as he belatedly reported.12 On this evidence, Freud developed his “seduction theory”—the theory that hysterical symptoms have their origin in sexual abuse suffered in childhood, which is repressed and eventually assimilated to later sexual experience. Freud first formulated the seduction theory in a letter to his colleague and confidant Wilhelm Fliess in October 1895, and he presented it to the Vienna psychiatric establishment on April 21, 1896, in a paper titled “The Aetiology of Hysteria.” The paper, Freud wrote to Fliess, “met with an icy reception,”13 summed up in Krafft-Ebing's dismissal of it as “a scientific fairytale” (Origins, 167n.). For a time Freud pursued the research by which he hoped to prove the seduction theory, writing to Fliess in December 1896: “My psychology of hysteria will be preceded by the proud words: “Introite et hic dii sunt [Enter, for here too are gods]” (Origins, 172). His pride in his discovery was shortlived, however, for within a year, he would write again to confide “the great secret which has been slowly dawning on me in recent months. I no longer believe in my neurotica” (Origins, 215). From this point, Freud went on to found psychoanalytic theory upon the oedipal complex.

Historians of psychoanalysis consider Freud's turn from the seduction theory to the oedipal complex crucial to the development of psychoanalysis. Anna Freud wrote that “keeping up the seduction theory would mean to abandon the Oedipus complex, and with it the whole importance of phantasy life. … In fact, I think there would have been no psychoanalysis afterwards.”14 But a more critical reading of Freud's abandonment of his seduction theory has emerged from feminist scholarship over the last decade. Several critics have argued—Luce Irigaray from feminist theory, Alice Miller as well as Herman and Hirschman from clinical evidence, Marie Balmary from a psychoanalytic reading of the “text” of Freud's life and work, Florence Rush and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson from historical evidence, among others—that Freud turned away from the seduction theory not because it lacked explanatory power but because he was unable to come to terms with what he was the first to discover: the crucial role played in neurosis by the abuse of paternal power.15

For purposes of the present argument, the issue is best put in terms of credit or authority: the hysterics, Breuer's and his own, confronted Freud with the problem of whose story to believe, the father's or the daughter's. From the first, Freud identified with the hysterics strongly enough that he could hear what they told him. Yet, although he could trace the etiology of hysteria to sexual abuse suffered in childhood, Freud could not bring himself to draw the conclusion that his evidence presented to him: that the abuser was most often the father. The cases of Anna O., Lucy R., Katharina, Elizabeth von R., and Rosalia H. described in Studies on Hysteria all connect symptoms more or less closely with fathers or, in Lucy's case, with a father substitute. In two cases, however, Freud represented the father as an uncle, a misrepresentation that he corrected only in 1924; and his reluctance to implicate the father appears strikingly in a supplemental narrative of an unnamed patient whose physician-father accompanied her during her hypnotic sessions with Freud. When Freud challenged her to acknowledge that “something else had happened which she had not mentioned,” she “gave way to the extent of letting fall a single significant phrase; but she had hardly said a word before she stopped, and her old father, who was sitting behind her, began to sob bitterly.” Freud concludes: “Naturally I pressed my investigation no further; but I never saw the patient again.”16 Here Freud's sympathies divide: had the father not intruded, Freud undoubtedly would have heard her out as he had Katharina; but, made aware of the father's anguish, he “naturally” cooperated with it even to the extent of repressing from his text the “single significant phrase” that may have held the key to her neurosis.

In larger terms, too, Freud's work on hysteria posed the dilemma of whether to elicit and credit the daughter's story, with which rested, as other cases had shown, his hope of curing her limping walk; or to honor the father's sob, which corroborated even as it silenced the girl's significant word. The list of reasons Freud gave Fliess for abandoning the seduction theory is, as Balmary points out, not very compelling; indeed, it contradicts the evidence of Studies on Hysteria. Freud complains that he cannot terminate the analyses, even though several cases (notably Anna O./Bertha Pappenheim, who was Breuer's patient) are there described as terminating in a lasting cure. He complains of not being able to distinguish between truth and “emotionally charged fiction” in his patients, even though he had linked the vanishing of symptoms with the recovery of traumatic experience through memory—whether narrated with apparent fidelity to literal fact, as in Katharina's case, or in dream imagery, as by Anna O., whom Breuer wrote that he always found “entirely truthful and trustworthy” (Studies on Hysteria, 43). And Freud claims to have been frustrated in his attempt to recover the buried trauma, despite his success in some instances. Only one item on the list is upheld by the earlier cases: “the astonishing thing that in every case my own not excluded, blame was laid on perverse acts by the father, and realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, in every case of which the same thing applied, though it was hardly credible that perverted acts against children were so general.”17

The problem was precisely that sexual abuse of children by fathers appeared “so general.” In the years between conceiving and abandoning the seduction theory, Freud was engaged in his own self-analysis, in which he discovered, through dreams, his own incestuous wishes toward his daughter Mathilde and, through symptoms exhibited by his siblings, the possibility that his father Jakob had abused his children. Jakob himself died on October 23, 1896, initiating in Freud a complex process of mourning that ultimately strengthened his idealization of his father. Freud's dream of Irma's injection, which concerned a patient who shared his daughter Mathilde's name, superimposed a destructive father-daughter relationship upon one between physician and patient. Nor could the father's fault be contained within the bounds of the hysterics' individual histories. Recent research, for example Herman's, has traced many continuities between the problem of father-daughter incest and the dominance of male/paternal authority in society as a whole; Freud too faced implications that would have changed the focus of his work from individual therapy to social criticism. The “icy reception” with which the professional community of fin de siècle Vienna greeted his 1896 lecture, which did not explicitly implicate fathers in hysteria, was indication enough that Freud, if he credited the daughters, would risk sharing their fate of being silenced and ignored. The stakes for Freud were very high, for the fathers who paid him his (at that time meager) living also represented, as had Jakob, the privileged place that Freud, as a male, could himself hope to attain in the culture. Acceding, upon Jakob's death, to the place of the father, he acceded also to the father's text, which gave him small choice but to judge the daughters' stories “hardly credible.”

Yet Freud could not easily call in the credit that he had already invested in the daughters' stories. As Jane Gallop notes, he continued to speak of “actual seduction” long after he had supposedly repudiated it, with the difference that he now deflected guilt from the father to, variously, the nurse, the mother, and, by way of the oedipal complex, the child herself.18 Balmary argues persuasively that Freud's own hysterical symptoms grew more pronounced as he undertook to deny what he was the first to discover, that “the secret of hysteria is the father's hidden fault”: and that the texts documenting his turn to the oedipal complex betray that turn as a symptomatic effort to conceal the father's fault.19 Seduced by the father's sob story, Freud took upon himself the burden his patients bore of concealing the father's fault in mute symptomology. Hysterics, Freud wrote, suffer from reminiscence.20 As Priam in his reply to Helen does not forget her words, so Freud in his later writings does not forget the daughter's story but rewrites it as the story of “femininity,” attributing to mothers, nurses, and a female “Nature” the damage to female subjectivity and desire wrought by specific historical events.21 Yet when Freud concludes in “Femininity” that woman has an inferior sense of justice and suggests that the “one technique” she has contributed to culture, the invention of plaiting and weaving, is designed to conceal the shame of her genital lack, it is he who, like Priam, is weaving a cultural text whose obscured but still legible design is to protect the father (conceived broadly as general and cultural, that is, as male authority) from suspicion of an insufficiently developed sense of justice. Like Priam, Freud makes subtle war on woman's desire and on the credibility of her language in order to avert its perceived threat to the father's cultural preeminence. If, in doing so, he produces a theory that Krafft-Ebing could have approved, he also composes a genuine “scientific fairytale.”

It appears, then, that Freud undertook not to believe the hysterics not because the weight of scientific evidence was on the father's side but because so much was at stake in maintaining the father's credit: the “innocence” not only of particular fathers—Freud's, Freud himself, the hysterics'—but also of the cultural structure that credits male authority at the expense of female authority, reproducing a social and political hierarchy of metaphorical fathers and daughters. The history of the seduction theory shows Freud's genius, but it also shows his seduction by the hysterical cultural script that protects the father's credit, and Freud's consequent inability, not unlike Helen's, the hysterics', or Woolf's fisher-woman's, to bring the story of sexual abuse and silencing to light. When Helen sublimely paints herself and Hektor as willing victims upon the altar of an art that serves the divine plan of Zeus, “father of gods and men,” she speaks this cultural script; as Priam does in reminiscing about Amazons; as the hysterics with their bodily reminiscences and Freud with his theory of femininity did; and as Woolf's fisherwoman does, with her imagination gagged and petticoated in deference to the “conventions.”

Women's literary history has important continuities with the actual and imaginative histories told by Homer, Freud, and Herman. Woman's cultural seduction is not merely analogous to the physical abuses that Freud's patients claimed to have suffered but continuous with them. Herman shows that the abusive or seductive father does serious harm to the daughter's mind as well as to her body, damaging her sense of her own identity and depriving her voice of authority and strength. For the literary daughter—the woman reader/writer as daughter of her culture—the metaphysical violence against women inscribed in the literary tradition, although more subtle and no less difficult to acknowledge and understand, has serious consequences. Metaphysically, the woman reader of a literary tradition that inscribes violence against women is an abused daughter. Like physical abuse, literary violence against women works to privilege the cultural father's voice and story over those of women, the cultural daughters, and indeed to silence women's voices. If Freud had difficulty telling the difference between his patients' histories and their fantasies, the power of such cultural fantasies as Homer's and Freud's to shape their audiences' sense of the world is self-evident.

But the Freud of 1892 understood the power of language to cure. Woolf, we remember, predicted a moment when women would break through the constraints of the cultural text. If the literary family history resembles the histories Freud elicited from his patients, we could expect the cultural daughter's telling of her story to work not only a “cure” of her silence in culture but, eventually, a more radical cure of the hysterical cultural text that entangles both women and men. To explore these possibilities, I will turn to a daughter's text that breaks even as it represents the daughter's hysterical silence, in doing so, crossing images of literal and literary sexual abuse: Maya Angelou's autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

THE DAUGHTER'S STORY AND THE FATHER'S LAW

Early in her memoir, Angelou presents a brief but rich biographia literaria in the form of a childhood romance: “During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passion for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois' ‘Litany at Atlanta.’ But it was Shakespeare who said, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.’ It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long that it couldn't matter to anyone any more.”22 Maya and her brother Bailey reluctantly abandon their plan to memorize a scene from Shakespeare—“we realized that Momma would question us about the author and that we'd have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn't matter to her whether he was dead or not” (I Know Why, 11)—and choose Johnson's “The Creation” instead. This passage, depicting the trials attending those interracial affairs of the mind that Maya must keep hidden from her vigilant grandmother, raises the question of what it means for a female reader and fledgling writer to carry on a love affair with Shakespeare or with male authors in general. While the text overtly confronts and disarms the issue of race, the seduction issue is only glancingly acknowledged. But this literary father-daughter romance resonates quietly alongside Angelou's more disturbing account of the quasi-incestuous rape of the eight-year-old Maya by her mother's lover, Mr. Freeman—particularly by virtue of the line she finds so sympathetic in Shakespeare, “When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.”

Mr. Freeman's abuse of Maya occurs in two episodes. In the first, her mother rescues her from a nightmare by taking her into her own bed, and Maya then wakes to find her mother gone to work and Mr. Freeman grasping her tightly. The child feels, first, bewilderment and terror: “His right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die.” When Mr. Freeman subsides, however, so does Maya's fright: “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. … This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last” (I Know Why, 61). After the abuse comes the silencing: Mr. Freeman enlists the child's complicity by an act of metaphysical violence, informing her that he will kill her beloved brother Bailey if she tells anyone what “they” have done. For the child, this prohibition prevents not so much telling as asking, for, confused as she is by her conflicting feelings, she has no idea what has happened. One day, however, Mr. Freeman stops her as she is setting out for the library, and it is then that he commits the actual rape on the terrified child, “a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart” (I Know Why, 65). Again threatened with violence if she tells, Maya retreats to her bed in a silent delirium, but the story emerges when her mother discovers her stained drawers, and Mr. Freeman is duly arrested and brought to trial.

At the trial, the defense lawyer as usual attempts to blame the victim for her own rape. When she cannot remember what Mr. Freeman was wearing, “he snickered as though I had raped Mr. Freeman” (I Know Why, 70). His next question, as to whether Mr. Freeman had ever touched her prior to that Saturday, reduces her to confusion because her memory of her own pleasure in being held by him seems to her to implicate her in his crime: “I couldn't say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close. … My uncles would kill me and Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking. … 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” (I Know Why, 70–71). An adult can see that the daughter's need for a father's affection does not cancel his culpability for sexually abusing her. But the child cannot resolve the conflict between her desire to tell the truth, which means acknowledging the pleasure she felt when Mr. Freeman gently held her, and her awareness of the social condemnation that would greet this revelation. She knows the cultural script and its hermeneutic traditions, which hold all female pleasure guilty, all too well, and so she betrays her actual experience with a lie: “Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be No. Everyone except Mr. Freeman and me. … I said No” (I Know Why, 71). But she chokes on the lie and has to be taken down from the stand. Mr. Freeman is sentenced to a year and a day, but somehow manages to be released that very afternoon; and not long thereafter, he is killed by her Baxter uncles. Hearing of Mr. Freeman's death, Maya is overwhelmed with terror and remorse: “A man was dead because I lied” (I Know Why, 72). Taking his death as proof that her words have power to kill, she descends into a silence that lasts for a year. Like Helen's sacrificial speech, Maya's silence speaks the hysterical cultural script: it expresses guilt and anguish at her own aggression against the father and voluntarily sacrifices the cure of truthful words.

Maya's self-silencing recalls the link between sexual violation and silence in the archetypal rape myth of Philomela. Ovid's retelling of the Greek myth entwines rape with incest as Tereus, watching Philomela cajole her father into allowing her to visit her sister Procne, puts himself in her father's place: “He would like to be / Her father at that moment, and if he were / He would be as wicked a father as he is a husband.”23 After the rape, in Ovid's story as in Angelou's, the victim's power of speech becomes a threat to the rapist and another victim of his violence: “Tereus did not kill her. He seized her tongue / With pincers, though it cried against the outrage, / Babbled and made a sound like Father, / Till the sword cut it off.”24 The tongue's ambiguous cry connects rape/incest with the sanctioned ownership of daughters by fathers in the marriage structure and interprets Procne's symmetrical violation of killing her son Itys: she becomes a bad mother to her son as Tereus has been a bad father to the daughter entrusted to him. In the suspension wrought by metamorphosis, Tereus becomes a war bird and Procne and Philomela become nightingales whose unintelligible song resembles the hysterics' speech. In silencing herself, Maya—who knows why the caged bird sings—plays all the parts in this cultural drama. She suffers as victim, speaks the father's death, and cuts out her own tongue for fear of its crying “Father.”

Maya breaks her silence when a woman befriends her by taking her home and reading aloud to her, then sending her off with a book of poems, one of which she is to recite on her next visit. We are not told which poem it was, but later we find that the pinnacle of her literary achievement at age twelve was to have learned by heart the whole of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece—nearly two thousand lines. Maya, it appears, emerges from her literal silence into a literary one. Fitting her voice to Shakespeare's words, she writes safe limits around the exclamations of her wounded tongue and in this way is able to reenter the cultural text that her words had formerly disrupted. But if Shakespeare's poem redeems Maya from her hysterical silence, it is also a lover that she embraces at her peril. In Angelou's text, Shakespeare's Lucrece represents that violation of the spirit which Shakespeare's and all stories of sleeping beauties commit upon the female reader. Maya's feat of memory signals a double seduction: by the white culture that her grandmother wished her black child not to love and by the male culture which imposes upon the rape victim, epitomized in Lucrece, the double silence of a beauty that serves male fantasy and a death that serves male honor.25 The black child's identification with an exquisite rape fantasy of white male culture violates her reality. Wouldn't everyone be surprised, she muses, “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? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them. … Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me 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” (I Know Why, 2). Maya's fantasy bespeaks her cultural seduction, but Angelou's powerful memoir, recovering the history that frames it, rescues the child's voice from this seduction by telling the prohibited story.

RE-CREATING THE UNIVERSE

If Angelou presents one woman's emergence from the hysterical cultural text, Alice Walker's The Color Purple deepens and elaborates its themes to work a more powerful cure. Published in 1982 (right on schedule with respect to Woolf's prediction), Walker's novel not only portrays a cure of one daughter's hysterical silence but rewrites from the ground up the cultural text that sanctions her violation and dictates her silence. Whereas the memoir form holds Angelou's story within the limits of history, Walker stages her cure in the imaginary spaces of fiction. Yet Walker conceived The Color Purple as a historical novel, and her transformation of the daughter's story into a fiction that lays claim to historical truth challenges the foundation of the “conventions,” social and cultural, that enforce women's silence.26 Walker retells the founding story of Western culture from a woman's point of view, and in an important sense, her historical novel—already celebrated as a landmark in the traditions of Black women's, Black, and women's writing—also stands in the tradition inaugurated by Homer and Genesis. Her hero Celie is a woman reborn to desire and language; and Walker, while not one with Celie as Angelou is with Maya, is a woman writer whom Woolf might well have considered a hero.

The Color Purple tells the story of a fourteen-year-old daughter's rape by her “Pa.” It begins in its own prohibition: its first words, inscribed like an epigraph over Celie's letters, are her “Pa”'s warning, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (Color, 11). Thus is Celie robbed, in the name of her mother, of her story and her voice. Later, her pa further discredits her when he hands Celie over to Mr.——— (ironically reduced to generic cultural father), a widower in need of a wife-housekeeper-caretaker of his children, with the warning: “She tell lies” (Color, 18). Isolated, ignorant, and confused, Celie follows her pa's prohibition literally, obediently silencing her speech but writing stumblingly of her bewilderment in letters to God: “Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (Color, 11).27 Celie's rape leaves her with guilt that blocks her words. But through her letter writing she is able at once to follow the letter of the father's law and to tell her story, first to that imaginary listener, the God of her father's command, and later, to the friend who saves her from silence, Shug Avery.

These ends are all the more powerful in that they emerge from Celie's seemingly hopeless beginnings. With the first of Celie's two pregnancies by her pa, he forces her to leave school: “He never care that I love it” (Color, 19). Celie keeps studying under her younger sister Nettie's tutelage, but the world recedes from her grasp. “Look like nothing she say can git in my brain and stay,” Celie writes God. “She try to tell me something bout the ground not being flat. I just say, Yeah, like I know it. I never tell her how flat it look to me” (Color, 20). While this passage conveys the pathos of Celie's isolation, it also reveals what will eventually prove the source of her strength, for Celie's eventual emergence from silence, ignorance, and misery depends upon her fidelity to the way things look to her. One important instance is her feeling for her mother, who is too weak and ill to intervene in the incest and who dies soon after Celie's second child is born. “Maybe cause my mama cuss me you think I kept mad at her,” Celie tells God. “But I ain't. I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her” (Color, 15).

As Celie never loses her identification with her mother, so she is saved from her isolation by three other women who become her companions and examples and whose voices foil Celie's submissive silence. Sofia, who marries Mr.———'s son Harpo, is at first a problem for Celie, who tells God: “I like Sofia, but she don't act like me at all. If she talking when Harpo and Mr.——— come in the room, she keep right on. If they ast her where something at, she say she don't know. Keep talking” (Color, 42). When Harpo consults her about how to make Sofia mind, Celie advises: “Beat her” (Color, 43)—propounding the cultural script of violent male rule in marriage, the only one she knows. But when Sofia angrily confronts Celie, a friendship forms, and Celie begins to abandon her numb allegiance to the father's law. Shug Avery, a brilliant blues singer and Mr.———'s long-time lover, enters Celie's life when Mr.——— brings her home ill for Celie to nurse. Like Sofia, Shug talks: “she say whatever come to mind, forgit about polite” (Color, 73). Mary Agnes, Harpo's girl friend after Sofia's departure, begins, like Celie, as a relatively weak and silent woman. Yet when she is elected to go ask help from the white warden for Sofia in prison, she returns from her mission battered and bruised, and only after some urging—“Yeah, say Shug, if you can't tell us, who you gon tell, God?” (Color, 95)—is she able to tell the others that the warden has raped her. Telling the story, she becomes her own authority, symbolized in her self-naming: when Harpo says, “I love you, Squeak,” she replies, “My name Mary Agnes” (Color, 95).

Mary Agnes's example is important for Celie, who, until now, has buried her story in her letters. One night soon afterward, when their husbands are away, Shug comes into bed with Celie for warmth and company, and Celie tells her everything: “I cry and cry and cry. Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug arms. … Nobody ever love me, I say. She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprise. … Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too” (Color, 108–9). To know all alone, Balmary writes, is to know as if one did not know. To know with another is conscious knowledge, social knowledge, con-science.28 Celie's telling of her story is an act of knowing-with that breaks the father's law, his prohibition of conscience. Knowing her story with Shug begins to heal Celie's long-hidden wounds of body and voice.

The radical conscience of Walker's novel goes beyond restoring Celie's voice to break down the patriarchal marriage plot that sanctions violence against women. This dismantling begins with another wound when Shug and Celie find the letters from Nettie that Mr.——— has spitefully hidden since the sisters' separation. From them, Celie learns her lost history: that their father had been lynched when they were babies for having a store that did too well; that their mother, then a wealthy widow, had lost her reason and married a stranger, the man Celie knew as her “Pa”; that he had given Celie's two children to Samuel and Corrine, the missionaries to whom Nettie had also fled; and that, Corrine having died, Samuel, Nettie, and Celie's children are returning to the United States from their African mission. Celie's first response when she finds the intercepted letters is a murderous fury toward father both physical and metaphysical. Shug has to disarm her of the razor she is about to use to kill Mr.———, and the scales fall from her eyes with respect to the God to whom she has been writing: “Dear God, … My daddy lynch. My mama crazy. All my little half-brothers and sisters no kin to me. My children not my sister and brother. Pa not pa. You must be sleep” (Color, 163).

With Shug's help, Celie is able to translate her murderous rage into powerful speech and to meet Mr.——— on the battlefield of language. Patriarchal family rule and patriarchal metaphysics break down simultaneously as Shug and Celie leave Mr.———'s house for Shug's Memphis estate. Celie's self-assertion is met with scorn by Mr.———: “Shug got talent, he say. She can sing. She got spunk, he say. She can talk to anybody. Shug got looks, he say. She can stand up and be notice. But what you got? You ugly. You skinny. You shape funny. You too scared to open your mouth to people” (Color, 186). But Celie's voice gains strength as she comes into possession of her history, and for the first time, she finds words to resist Mr.———:

I curse you, I say.


What that mean? he say.


I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.


He laugh. Who you think you is? he say. …


A dust devil flew up on the porch between us, fill my mouth with dirt. The dirt say, Anything you do to me, already done to you.


Then I feel Shug shake me. Celie, she say. And I come to myself.


I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here.


Amen, say Shug. Amen, amen.

[Color, 187]

Celie's curse, which Walker enhances with epic machinery, is powerful. But unlike the razor which Shug takes out of her hand, it does not return Mr.———'s violence in kind. Instead, the decline of the father's law in Walker's novel creates temporary separate spheres for women and men in which gender hierarchy breaks down in the absence of the “other,” enabling women and men eventually to share the world again. Celie's authority is consolidated as she comes into economic independence. Earlier, Shug had distracted Celie from her murderous rage toward Mr.——— by suggesting that the two of them sew her a pair of pants. “What I need pants for?” Celie objects. “I ain't no man” (Color, 136). In Memphis, while trying to think what she wants to do for a living, Celie sits “making pants after pants” (Color, 190) and soon finds her vocation, founding “Folkpants, Unlimited.” In this comic reversal, the garment that Celie at first associates strictly with men becomes the means, symbolic and material, of her economic independence and her self-possession.

The magical ease with which Celie emerges from poverty and silence classes Walker's “historical novel” with epic and romance rather than with realist or socialist realist fiction. Walker's Shug has a power that is historically rare indeed, and Celie's and Nettie's inheritance of their father's house, in particular, indulges in narrative magic that well exceeds the requirements of the plot. But Celie's utopian history allegorizes not only women's need to be economically independent of men but the daughter's need to inherit the symbolic estate of culture and language that has always belonged to the father, a “place” in culture and language from which she, like Archimedes, can move her world. When Celie comes into the power of language, work, and love, her curse temporarily comes true. As the daughter learns to speak, Mr.——— falls into a hysterical depression. Mr.———'s crisis signals the death of the cultural father whom he had earlier embodied: “Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr.——— say, Cause she my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for—he don't finish. He just tuck his chin over the paper like he do. Remind me of Pa” (Color, 30). As cultural father, Mr.———'s law was unspoken, his ways immutable, and his words so close to the patriarchal script that he didn't have to finish his sentences. By the end of the novel, however, Mr.——— has abandoned that role to become Albert and to “enter into the Creation” (Color, 181). By the novel's last scenes, Albert's life is scarcely differentiable from Celie's, and he tells her, “Celie, I'm satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man” (Color, 230).

An important effect of Albert's transition from patriarch to natural man is the abandonment of that strictly literal stake in paternity that the marriage structure serves. As a “natural man,” Albert, like everyone else, spends a lot of time concocting devious recipes to hide the taste of yams from Henrietta—who, Celie explains, has to eat yams to control her chronic blood disease but “Just our luck she hate yams and she not too polite to let us know” (Color, 222). Henrietta, Sofia's youngest child, whose “little face always look like stormy weather” (Color, 196), is a crucial figure in the novel. Though Harpo tries to claim her as his sixth child, she is nobody's baby; only Sofia (if anyone) knows who her father is. Nonetheless, Harpo, Albert, and everyone else feel a special affection for “ole evil Henrietta” (Color, 247), and, as they knock themselves out making yam peanut butter and yam tuna casserole, it becomes apparent that, in Walker's recreated universe, the care of children by men and women without respect to proprietary biological parenthood is an important means of undoing the exploitative hierarchy of gender roles.29 If Celie's discovery that “Pa not pa” liberates her from the law of the father that makes women and children its spiritual and sexual subjects, Albert, in learning to “wonder” and to “ast” (Color, 247) and to care for Henrietta, escapes the confines of the patriarchal role. As the functions of father and mother merge, the formerly rigid boundaries of the family become fluid: Celie, Shug, and Albert feel “right” sitting on the porch together; love partners change with desire; and, most important, children circulate among many parents: Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie raise Celie's; Celie raises Mr.———'s and Annie Julia's; Sofia, Odessa, and Mary Agnes exchange theirs; and the whole community, including the white Eleanor Jane, becomes involved with yams and Henrietta. Whereas, in the patriarchal societies analyzed by Lévi-Strauss, the exchange of women forges bonds between men that support male culture, in Walker's creation story children are the miracle and mystery that bond all her characters to the world, each other, and the future.

Undoing the gender hierarchy necessitates a rewriting of the Creation myth and a dismantling of the hierarchical concepts of God and authority that underwrite them in Western tradition. The God to whom Celie writes her early letters loses credibility once she learns, through Nettie's letters, that nothing is as the law of the father proclaimed it. When Shug hears her venting her wrath, she is shocked: “Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.” “Let 'im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.” Shug deconstructs Celie's theology: “You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a 'tall,” she explains. “He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain't”; “God ain't a he or a she, but a It. … It ain't something you can look at apart from everything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything … that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It” (Color, 175–79). In Walker's cosmos, the monotheistic Western myth of origins gives way to one of multiple, indeed infinite, beginnings that the new myth of Celie's fall and self-redemption celebrates. Hers is not a Creation finished in the first seven days of the world but one in which all creators are celebrated, if at times reluctantly. When Sofia, with what Harpo calls her “amazon sisters,” insists on bearing her mother's casket, Harpo asks,

Why you like this, huh? Why you always think you have to do things your own way? I ast your mama bout it one time, while you was in jail.


What she say? ast Sofia.


She say you think your way as good as anybody else's. Plus, it yours.

[Color, 196]

Walker echoes this moment in her epigraph, which translates Harpo's “here come the amazons” (Color, 198) into: “Show me how to do like you. Show me how to do it” (Color, i). She fills her historical novel with creators, authorities, beginnings, “others.” Like all authors of epic, she collapses transcendence and history; but her history differs from that of earlier epics. Originating in a violation of the patriarchal law, it undoes the patriarchal cultural order and builds upon new ground. “Womanlike,” Walker writes, “my ‘history’ starts not with the taking of lands, or the births, battles, and deaths of Great Men, but with one woman asking another for her underwear.”30 The violation of “conventions” that this exchange of underwear stages breaks through the patriarchal sexual and spiritual economy, writing into history a story long suppressed and revising history by doing so. Celie's last letter—addressed to “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God”—records a conversation about history:

Why us always have family reunion on July 4th, say Henrietta, mouth poke out, full of complaint. It so hot.


White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th, say Harpo, so most black folks don't have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other.


Ah, Harpo, say Mary Agnes, sipping some lemonade. I didn't know you knowed history.

[Color, 249–50]

Harpo's decentering history is a microcosm of Walker's, which ends with a beginning: “I feel a little peculiar round the children,” Celie writes. “And I see they think [us] real old and don't know much what going on. But I don't think us feel old at all. … Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt” (Color, 251). As Celie's beginning could have been a silent end, so her ending continues the proliferating beginnings that the novel captures in its epistolary form, its characters' histories, and the daily revelations that Shug names “God.”

Walker's telling of the daughter's long-repressed story marks an important beginning for literary history. In her hands, the forbidden story recreates the world by reclaiming female subjectivity. “What I love best bout Shug,” Celie tells Albert, “is what she been through. When you look in Shug's eyes, you know she been where she been, seen what she seen, did what she did. And now she know. … And if you don't git out the way, she'll tell you about it” (Color, 236). Walker's woman as hero, whose history is her identity and who recreates the universe by telling her story to the world, is not new in real life. But she is only now making her presence felt in the literary tradition, opening a powerfully transformative dialogue between herself and the world, between her story and his, and between ourselves and our cultural past. As she does so, we can look forward to that “most interesting, exciting, and important conversation” that Woolf predicted would begin once woman recovered her voice.

Notes

  1. Sigmund Freud. The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes: 1887–1902, ed. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, trans. Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1954), 141; hereafter cited in the text as Origins.

  2. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 15; hereafter cited in the text as Color.

  3. Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters: The Novel-Essay Portion of “The Years,” ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), xxxviii–xxxix. See also Woolf's A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929), 5–6, and “Professions for Women” (written in 1932) in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942). 240–41.

  4. See Judith Lewis Herman with Lisa Hirschman, Father-Daughter Incest (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), esp. chaps. 1, 4–7. For a history of twentieth-century sociological scholarship on incest, see pp. 9–21. My reading of women's literary history augments Harold Bloom's model of male literary history as oedipal family romance. On the same question, see Sandra M. Gilbert's “Notes toward a Literary Daughteronomy,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 3 (1985): 355–84.

  5. The Iliad of Homer, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1974), 73: hereafter cited in the text as Iliad.

  6. Page duBois, Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982); and William Blake Tyrrell, Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984); cited in the text as Amazons. DuBois writes that marriage, “in Lévi-Strauss' sense, the exchange of women between men of the same kind, was culture for the Greeks” (41).

  7. Tyrrell, p. 29, citing Simon Pembroke, “Women in Charge: The Function of Alternatives in Early Greek Tradition and the Ancient Idea of Matriarchy,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967): 26–27.

  8. Compare Shakespeare's use of magic to quell unruly female desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Amazon power—embodied in Hippolyta, whom Theseus wooed by his sword and won while doing her injuries—also symbolizes disruptions to marriage caused by female solidarity and independent female desire. Shakespeare resolves the conflict between Oberon and Titania over the changeling her votaress left her in favor of patriarchal rule by the violence of a figure: the magic flower upon which Oberon's power depends.

  9. Ann L. T. Bergren analyzes Helen's ambiguous status in Greek culture as object of exchange and agent of her own desire. Gorgias, defending Helen, poses three readings of her flight with Paris—abduction by force, persuasion by speech, and capture by love—all of which represent her as compelled “not otherwise than if she had been raped” (“Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought,” Arethusa 16 [1983]: 69–95, esp. 83). But such a defense also denies Helen the agency of her own desire, circumscribing it within the male ethical scheme attendant upon the marriage structure. Priam's exoneration of Helen—“You are not to blame, / I hold the gods to blame” (Iliad, 73)—similarly exemplifies the attempt to circumscribe female desire within the male ethical scheme attendant upon the marriage structure, which maintains its eminence in pronouncing her “guilty” or “innocent.”

  10. Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Nature as Male Is to Culture?” in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), 67–87, argues that childbearing and attendant social responsibilities and psychic structures cause women to be seen as closer to nature than men. Further, as the Iliad suggests, the founding texts of Western culture manifest an active antagonism to female desire, social power, and language—in a word, to female culture making. If, as de Beauvoir, Dinnerstein, and others have argued, it is woman as nature that male culture seeks to bring under control, the effect of men's and women's equal involvement in “projects of creativity and transcendence” (Ortner, 87) would be not only to dissolve the male culture/female nature dichotomy but to transform the “nature” of culture.

  11. See Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963), 96: “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

  12. See Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), 22:120n. (editor's note).

  13. Max Schur, Freud: Living and Dying (New York: International Universities Press, 1972), 104.

  14. Anna Freud, cited in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), 113. This view has prevailed among psychoanalysts, but since Freud was already discovering the unconscious, infantile sexuality, and symbolic process in treating hysterics, it does not appear to be well-founded.

  15. See Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l'autre femme (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974); Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, trans. Hildegarde Hannum and Hunter Hannum (1981; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984); Herman with Hirschman (n. 4 above), chaps. 1, 4; Marie Balmary, Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis: Freud and the Hidden Fault of the Father, trans. Ned Lukacher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982; originally published in France in 1979), chaps. 5–7; Florence Rush, The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980), chap. 7; and Masson (n. 14 above).

  16. Sigmund Freud and Marcel Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, in Standard Edition, 2:100–101n.

  17. Freud, Origins, 215–16. Balmary supplies the italicized phrase, omitted in Origins, from the 1975 German edition of the Freud/Fliess correspondence.

  18. Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), 144–45. While I have found Gallop's treatment of father/daughter seduction provocative and enlightening, both my approach and the sociological and literary texts I consider place more emphasis than she does on the damaging effects of seduction on the daughter, who is by virtue of age, family role, and gender far weaker than the father.

  19. Balmary powerfully reinterprets the oedipal myth, recovering aspects suppressed in Sophocles' and Freud's accounts that reveal Oedipus's crimes to be an unconscious repetition of his father's, as well as biographical materials, also suppressed, that uncover the sudden, unexplained disappearance of Jakob's second wife Rebecca and the likelihood that Freud was conceived before Jakob married Freud's mother Amalie, his third wife.

  20. Marcel Breuer and Sigmund Freud, “The Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena,” in Standard Edition, 2:7.

  21. Feminist critiques of “Female Sexuality,” “Femininity,” and the Dora case engage the issue of femininity in Freud's treatment of hysteria; see esp. Catherine Clément and Hélène Cixous. La jeune née (Paris: UGE, 1975), and the essays collected in In Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism, ed. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  22. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 11; hereafter cited in the text as I Know Why.

  23. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955). 144–45. See Patricia Joplin, “The Voice of the Shuttle Is Ours,” Stanford Literature Review 1 (1984): 25–53 for an excellent study of the complex inscription of cultural violence against women in the Philomela myth.

  24. A parody of castration, this scene, like Priam's thoughts of Amazons, projects the war between the father's desire, represented by the penis/sword, and the daughter's, represented by a phallus-like tongue with power to tell her story. The ambiguity of father figures in Ovid's retelling points to the fact that the father's ownership of his daughter gives him privileged sexual access to her, whether or not he avails himself of it. Herman (n. 4 above), 98 notes that incest victims frequently report that men find their histories arousing, as though they too envy the place of the bad father; see also Susan Brownmiller, who concludes that the cultural taboo against acknowledging the high incidence of father rape arises from the “patriarchal philosophy of sexual private property,” of which children are an extension (Against Our Wills: Men, Women, and Rape [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975], 311).

  25. Maya's identification with Lucrece conceals by revealing, exemplifying Freud's view of the hysterical symptom as “a compromise between two opposite affective and instinctual impulses,” one trying to bring to light and the other trying to repress (“Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality,” in Standard Edition, 9:164). Freud posits a conflict between homosexual and heterosexual desire as the symptom's cause, but, as Maya's case shows, the conflictual nature of the symptom is better explained by the social danger in which the victim finds herself. See Coppélia Kahn, “The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece,Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 45–72, for the earliest treatment of rape in the poem.

  26. Alice Walker, “Writing The Color Purple,” in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 356.

  27. Compare the incest victim in Herman's study (n. 4 above) who “wrote private letters to God.” 99.

  28. Balmary (n. 15 above), 159 ff.; see also Herman with Hirschman (n. 4 above), 178 ff.

  29. See Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

  30. Walker, “Writing The Color Purple,” 356. Compare the title of Jacob's essay, “‘Does History Consist of the Biographies of Great Men?’” in Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room (1922; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 39.

I thank Paul Wallich, Elizabeth Abel, Margaret Ferguson, Margaret Homans, Patricia Joplin, Claire Kahane, Adrienne Munich, Julie Rivkin, and Patricia Spacks for helpful readings and comments.

Dolly A. McPherson (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: McPherson, Dolly A. “Initiation and Self Discovery.” In Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou, pp. 21–55. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In the following essay, McPherson discusses I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a record of Angelou's discovery of her own interior world and identity.]

“… We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood. … I have spent over fifty years listening to my people.”

—Maya Angelou

“… I think of my life and the lives of everyone who has ever lived, or will ever live, as not just journeys through time but as sacred journeys.”

—Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

“The longest journey is the journey inwards.”

—Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

Until Maya Angelou published the first volume of her autobiography, no one could have predicted that she would achieve such popular recognition, as distinct from the esteem which many Black writers had long enjoyed as in academic and literary circles, i.e., Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden and Margaret Walker. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970, broke ground in terms of critical acclaim, and large sales throughout the country presaged the success soon afterwards of such writers as Rosa Guy, Louise Merriwether, Verta Mae Grosvenor, and Alice Walker.

Maya Angelou started writing relatively late in life and was forty-one when I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published. Her adult life up to then had been a dizzying succession of mini-careers, many of which are described in the five volumes of the autobiography. For Angelou, however, the autobiographical mode was to become the means to an enduring public career. Written at the urging of friends who were overwhelmed and fascinated by the stories she told about her childhood, her grandmother in Arkansas, and her mother in California, Angelou recalls that she was “roped” into writing this first volume:

At the time, I was really only concerned with poetry, though I had written a television series. James Baldwin took me to a party at Jules and Judy Feiffer's home. We enjoyed each other immensely and sat up until three or four o'clock in the morning drinking scotch and telling tales. The next morning Judy Feiffer called a friend of hers at Random House and said, “You know the poet Maya Angelou? If you can get her to write a book …” When Robert Loomis, Judy's friend and an editor at Random House called, I told him that I was not interested. Then I went to California to produce a series for WNET. Loomis called me two or three times, but I continued to say that I was not interested. Then, I am sure, he talked to Baldwin because he used a ploy which I am not proud to say I haven't gained control of yet. He called and said, “Miss Angelou, it's been nice talking to you. But I'm rather glad that you decided not to write an autobiography because to write an autobiography as literature is a most difficult task.” I said, “Then I'll do it.” Now that's an area I don't have control of yet at this age. The minute someone says I can't, all of my energy goes up and I say, “Yes I can.” I believe all things are possible for a human being, and I don't think there is anything in the world I can't do.1

On February 12, 1970, the date on which Caged Bird was launched publicly, critics had no reason to think that a first book by an entertainment personality would be of particular importance, although on that day the book received a note-worthy review in The New York Times. Shortly thereafter, in the March 2, 1970 edition of Newsweek, critic Robert A. Gross praised Caged Bird, noting that it

was more than a tour de force of language or the story of childhood suffering because it quietly and gracefully portrays and pays tribute to the courage, dignity and endurance of the small, rural Southern Black community in which [Angelou] spent most of her early years in the 1930's.2

At about the same time, Edmund Fuller observed, in his Wall Street Journal review that

Only the early signs of artistry and intellectual range are in this story, but their fulfillment are as evident in the writing as in the accomplishments of Maya Angelou's varied career.3

Before the end of the year, other critics were heralding Caged Bird as marking the beginning of a new era in the consciousness of Black men and women and creating a distinctive place in Black autobiographical tradition.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (hereafter called Caged Bird) is a carefully conceived record of a young girl's slow and clumsy growth. It is also a record of her initiation into her world and her discovery of her interior identity. In Caged Bird, Angelou first confidently reaches back in memory to pull out the painful times: when she and her brother Bailey fail to understand the adult code and, therefore, break laws they know nothing of; when they swing easily from hysterical laughter to desperate loneliness, from a hunger for heroes to the voluntary pleasure-pain game of wondering who their real parents are and how long it will be before they come to take them to their real home. Growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, as Maya Angelou describes those long-ago years, is a continual struggle against surrender to the very large adults, who, being Black, practiced and taught special traditions whose roots were buried in Africa or had been created during centuries of slavery. According to these traditions, a good child dropped her eyes when speaking to an adult; a good child spoke softly; a good child never resisted the idea that Whites were better, cleaner, or more intelligent than Blacks. Growing up and surviving as a young girl in the South of the 1930s and early 1940s is a painful experience for a young girl whose world is colored by disillusion and despair, aloneness, self-doubt, and a diminished sense of self.

Indeed, Angelou underscores her diminished sense of self and the rootlessness of her early childhood years when she proclaims in the prologue:

“What are you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay …”(4)

The words are painfully appropriate, for the young Maya, then Marguerite Johnson, is a shy, tensely self-conscious child who believes that her true beauty is obscured. As she struggles to remember her lines, she is conscious of her dual self, which is the constant subject of her fantasies. Beneath the ugly disguise—a lavender taffeta dress remade from a White woman's discard, broad feet, and gap-teeth—is the real Marguerite.

Such fantasies are ephemeral and the time comes when the young girl must face the painful reality of her being. Angelou recalls that

Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn't hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.5

For Maya there is no magical metamorphosis, no respite from her “black dream.” On this Easter Sunday, she understands the futility of her wish to become “one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what is right with the world.”6 Unlike Christ, whose resurrection from death the church is commemorating, Maya cannot be reborn into another life where she will be White and perfect and wonderful.7 Pained by this reality and by the impossibility of her White fantasy, Maya flees from the church “peeing and crying” her way home.

This scene recreates graphically the dynamics of many young Black girls' disillusionment and imprisonment in American society. In Black Rage, psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobb describe this “imprisonment”:

If the society says that to be attractive is to be white, [the Black woman] finds herself unwittingly striving to be something she cannot possibly be; and if femininity is rooted in feeling oneself eminently lovable, then a society which views her as unattractive and repellent has also denied her this fundamental wellspring of femininity.8

The young Maya not only lives in a society which defines beauty in White terms of physical beauty, but she also internalizes these notions. In a letter (February 4, 1966) to her long-time friend Rosa Guy, Angelou wrote, “My belief [as a child] that I was ugly was absolute, and nobody tried to disabuse me—not even Momma. Momma's love enfolded me like an umbrella but at no time did she try to dissuade me of my belief that I was an ugly child.”9

In this letter and in the autobiography as well, Angelou offers important insights into the effects of social conditioning on the mind and emotions of a Black child growing up in a hostile environment. Writing from the perspective of adulthood, the older Angelou reveals that, within this imprisoning environment, there is no place for the young Maya; that she is a displaced person whose pain is intensified by her awareness of her displacement.10

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.11

Such truths characterize important segments of Angelou's life and provide wide-ranging, significant themes for the work.

Yet Angelou does not relate all facets of her childhood experiences. Rather, through a series of episodic chapters, she selects and chronicles those incidents from which she, as a girl-child, learned valuable, life-determining truths about the world, about her community, and about herself—truths incarnated in moments of insight (initiation) and discovery of self. By identifying these epiphanies, the reader is able to define the unique vision of the work and its precise and individual illumination of reality.

After the prologue, the reader meets two children, ages three and four, who are wearing wrist tags that identify them as Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr. A note addressed “To Whom It May Concern” states that they are traveling alone from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, to the care of Mrs. Annie Henderson. Angelou explains that she and her brother Bailey were shipped to the home of their paternal grandmother when their parents decided to end their calamitous marriage. The porter, who was charged with their welfare, ends his assignment the next day in Arizona, but before leaving the train, he pins their tickets to Bailey's inside coat pocket. From that day until the day of their arrival in Stamps, the children are literally on their own. This episode further defines the dynamics underlying Angelou's battered self-esteem. Early on, when the young Maya fantasizes that she is White, blond and beautiful, she does so because, in reality, she sees herself as a child whom no one could possibly love, certainly not her mother or father who have so totally rejected her.

Maya and Bailey reach safely their destination and gradually adjust to their new life in Stamps, becoming integral parts of Grandmother Henderson's store and religion, of Uncle Willie's life, and of the community itself, a community that closes around the children “as a real mother embraces a stranger's child. Warmly but not too familiarly.”12

There are nights when Maya and Bailey cry and share their loneliness as unwanted children who have been abandoned by their divorced parents. They also share their questions: Why did they send us away? What did we do so wrong? Why, at three and four, did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train alone from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us?13 Unable to accept the fact that they have been abandoned, Maya and Bailey convince themselves that their mother is dead because they cannot bear the thought that she “would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children.”14 Comforted by the imagined reality of her mother's death, Angelou, recalling the child's emotional response, writes:

I could cry anytime I wanted to by picturing my mother (I didn't know what she looked like) lying in her coffin. Her hair, which was black, was spread out on a tiny little pillow and her body was covered by a sheet. The face was brown, like a big O, and since I couldn't fill in the features I printed MOTHER across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.15

Angelou recalls vividly the assault to the young Maya's diminished sense of self when she receives her mother's first Christmas presents. The tea set and a doll with blue eyes, rosy cheeks and yellow hair are all symbols of a White world foreign to the child's experience. Not only is her mother alive, as the presents prove, but Maya, the five-year old herself, has been, the forgotten child during her two years of separation from her mother. The young Maya may, in time, be able to forgive her mother, but for the moment she must face the unimaginable reality of being both unwanted and abandoned.

Even if Angelou had focused on only the psychological trauma of her early years or had merely probed the fragile relationship between the environment and her coming-of-age, Caged Bird would merit the critical acclaim it has received. Clearly, the autobiography does much more. While Angelou constantly demonstrates the “unnecessary insult” of Southern Black girlhood in her passage from childhood to adolescence, at the same time she skillfully recreates those psychic, intellectual, and emotional patterns that identify her individual consciousness and experience. In doing so, the autobiographer gives concrete embodiment to such significant themes as Death, Regeneration, and Rebirth, and thus, makes a creative and imaginative use of the Christian myth.

Angelou's childhood is molded by her wise, hard-working grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, in a community where weekly church services, periodic revival meetings, and occasional confrontations with Whites punctuate the young girl's education. A tough-minded business woman who purchased her store and first parcel of land in 1910 with $1,000 in dimes earned from her sale of meat pies and lemonade, Grandmother Henderson is not demonstrative in her love for Maya. Yet she is uncompromising in that love. A model of righteous behavior and a source of knowledge and pride, she sustains the young Maya during one of the most difficult periods of her life. Moreover, she gives the child the kind of nurturing that will later fortify her to face her growing-up years and the outside world. From a childhood still vivid in her mind, Angelou recalls that “a deep-brooding love hung over everything she touched.”16

Through this indomitable woman, Maya is introduced to the spiritual side of Black life. Portrayed as an individual whose world is ordered by work, duty, “her place,” and religion, Grandmother Henderson represents the religious tradition begun in secret praise meetings during slavery and further developed in the small frame churches that once dotted the countryside and small American towns. Much of the strength of the Black woman in general and of Grandmother Henderson in particular can be attributed to the Black church. From slavery to emancipation, Blacks found solace in the Biblical injunction to “refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded …” (Jeremiah 31:16). A strongly devout woman, Grandmother Henderson begins each morning with a traditional prayer of thanks and supplication, one often heard in Black American churches through individual witness and testimony:

Our Father, thank you for letting me see this New Day. Thank you that you didn't allow the bed I lay on last night to be my cooling board, nor my blanket my winding sheet. Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow, and help me to put a bridle on my tongue. Bless this house and everybody in it. Thank you, in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.17

To Grandmother Henderson, God is a real and personal friend. In the spirit of many Black Americans of her time, her understanding of Biblical teachings has persuaded her that Blacks are God's chosen vessels, that He will punish those who torment His people. As God protected the Jews from Pharoah, she believes that God, in his own time and in His own way, will protect and deliver Blacks. Until that day comes, she teaches Maya and Bailey to rely on the promises of a just God, to avoid contact with Whites where possible, and to follow the paths of life that she and her generation had found to be safe ones. She also teaches them to respect piety and those customary laws that governed all areas of a “good” child's life and behavior. According to this rigid code, cleanliness is next to Godliness, dirtiness the inventor of misery. An impudent child is not only detested by God and a shame to its parents, but will also bring destruction to its house and life. Through the purity of her life and the quality of her discipline, Mrs. Annie Henderson demonstrates that, by centering one's being in God, one can endure and mitigate the effects of an unjust world. Angelou internalizes these silent lessons. Indeed, she owes much of her clarity of vision to her grandmother, who though not always able to protect herself and family from the exterior climate of hate, refuses to diminish herself as a human being by succumbing to bitterness or by engaging in aggressive, retaliatory behavior. Like any caring adult who has been charged with the responsibility of rearing a child, Mrs. Henderson knows that she must not only interpret society to Maya but also equip her with the pertinent skills and attitudes that will allow her to survive. While she is often unrelenting in her punishment (i.e., when she gives Maya a severe beating for using the expression “by the way”) and has little time or inclination to verbalize affection, Mrs. Henderson does manage to usher Maya safely through her childhood and early adolescence.

Angelou recalls that in Stamps “segregation was so complete that most Black children didn't really, absolutely know what Whites looked like.”18 Yet the White world remained an ever-hovering, dreaded threat. Total awareness of this threat led to a clearly defined pattern of behavior on the part of Blacks and respect for certain codes of conduct if one was to survive in the South. One respected, though unwritten, law was “The less [one said] to Whitefolks (or to even powhitetrash) the better. …” Moreover, as Angelou writes, Momma “didn't cotton to the idea that Whitefolk could be talked to at all without risking one's life.”19

Angelou's consciousness of the oppression suffered by Black Americans is honed by the realities of Maya's daily experience, the most difficult of which force her to acknowledge that like Grandmother Henderson, Uncle Willie and Bailey—like all those she knows to be good and worthy—she is also bound to be affected by forces outside her control or comprehension.

Angelou recalls a painfully confusing incident that occurred when she was 10 years old, an incident that she later would judge to be a pivotal experience in her initiation because it taught her an important lesson about her grandmother's ability to survive and triumph in a hostile environment. The incident involves three young White girls who are known to nettle Blacks and who have come onto Grandmother Henderson's property to taunt the older Black woman with their rudeness, to ape her posture and mannerisms, and to address her insolently by her first name. Throughout this scene, she stands solidly on her porch, smiling and humming a hymn. When their actions produce no results, the girls turn to other means of mockery, making faces at Mrs. Henderson, whispering obscenities, and doing handstands. The young Maya, who observes this painful scene from inside the store and suffers humiliation for her grandmother, wants to confront the girls directly, but she realizes that she is “as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside [are] confined to their roles.”20

Throughout the incident, Mrs. Henderson is a pillar of strength and dignity, standing tall and firm. As the girls take leave, they yell out in succession, “Bye Annie.” Never turning her head to acknowledge their departure or unfolding her arms, she responds, “Bye, Miz Helen, 'bye Miz Ruth, 'bye Miz Eloise.”21 Enraged by her grandmother's seeming subservience and powerlessness, Maya cries bitterly. Later, however, when she looks up into the face of her grandmother, who is quietly standing over her, she sees her face as “a brown moon that [shines] on [her].” Angelou recalls this moment:

She was beautiful. Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand, but I could see that she was happy. Then she bent down and touched me as mothers of the church lay hands on the sick and afflicted—and I quieted.


“Go wash you face, Sister.” And she went behind the candy counter and hummed, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”


I threw well water on my face and used the weekday handkerchief to blow my nose. Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won.22

This scene is a dramatic, symbolic recreation of the kind of spiritual death and regeneration Angelou experienced during the shaping of her development. But it is also a vivid recapturing of Black/White tensions in the South of the 1930s. On the one hand, three White girls, attempting to use their race as an overbearing instrument of power, treat a Black woman like another child, practicing the rituals of White power with the full sanction of the White community and attempting to reduce the Black woman to their level. On the other hand, the Black woman chooses the dignified course of silent endurance. Although Mrs. Henderson knows that she must accord the girls some modicum of respect, she refuses to recognize them as anything but White children, refuses to register their offensiveness or humanity, refuses to play their game. Seeking to preserve her own integrity and to transcend the ugliness of their actions, Mrs. Henderson wins a psychological victory by using this weapon to transcend the limitations of her social world.23

White dominance intrudes on other occasions that also teach Maya vital lessons in courage and survival and open her eyes to the fact that she belongs to an oppressed class. In Uncle Willie, for example, she sees the dual peril of being Black and crippled when he is forced to hide in the potato bin when the sheriff casually warns Grandmother Henderson that local White lynchers will be on a rampage in the Black community. Through this terrifying experience, Maya learns that lameness offers no protection from the wrath of bigots.

Other occasions provide proof of a predatory White world and of White ritualistic violence against the Black male, for example, when Bailey sees the castrated body of a Black man. Horrified by what he has seen but not understood, Bailey begins to ask questions that are dangerous for a young Black boy in the Arkansas of 1940. The incident leads Angelou to conclude bitterly that “the Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.”24 Years later, when Angelou must fight for the opportunity to become the first Black person hired as a conductor on the San Francisco streetcar, she learns that White racism is not merely a problem of the South but an evil that penetrates most aspects of American life.

While intrusion from the outside world provides experiences that increase the child's awareness of her social displacement, the Store, where Blacks congregate before and after work, teaches Maya the meaning of economic discrimination. By keenly observing the cotton workers who visit the Store, she gains insight into their inner lives. In the early dawn hours, Maya observes the cotton workers, gay and full of morning vigor, as they wait for the wagons to come and take them to the fields. Optimistic that the harvest will be good and not choosing to recall the disappointments of the recent past, the workers josh each other and flaunt their readiness to pick two or three hundred pounds of cotton this day. Even the children promise “to bring home fo' bits.”25 The later afternoons, however, reveal the actual harshness of Black Southern life. In the receding sunlight, “the people [drag themselves], rather than their empty sacks.”26 Angelou writes:

Brought back to the Store, the pickers would step out of the backs of trucks and fold down, dirt-disappointed, to the ground. No matter how much they had picked, it wasn't enough. Their wages wouldn't even get them out of debt to my grandmother, not to mention the staggering bill that waited on them at the white commissary downtown.


The sound of the new morning had been replaced with grumbling about cheating houses, skimpy cotton and dusty rows. In later years I was to confront the stereotyped picture of gay song-singing cotton pickers with such inordinate rage that I was told even by fellow Blacks that my paranoia was embarrassing. But I had seen the fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls, and I had witnessed the backs and shoulders and arms and legs resisting any further demand.27

In cotton-picking time, the late afternoons reveal the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature's blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness, and the soft lamplight.

While Caged Bird vividly portrays the negative social and economic texture of Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou, like many other Black autobiographers, describes the Southern Black community as one that nurtures its members and helps them to survive in such an antagonistic environment. There are numerous examples that demonstrate the communal character of life in Stamps. People help each other. During the Depression when no one has money, Grandmother Henderson employs a system of barter to help her neighbors and thus to save her store. When the wife of an old friend dies and the widower is unable to accept his loss, Grandmother Henderson and Uncle Willie, without a moment's hesitation, invite him to share their home, although space is limited and the guest will have to sleep on a pallet in Uncle Willie's small bedroom. When Bailey does not return from a movie at his usual time, the Black men and women share Grandmother Henderson's concern. One member's concern becomes the community's concern because members, in their practice of the rituals of extended family relationships, are not only related through the community but through the church as well.

Innumerable passages in Caged Bird provide a sense of the Black community, a sense of oneness, a sense of fused strength. The changing seasons, for example, provide opportunities for fellowship and festivity. In winter, after the first frost, hog killings are spirited events that demonstrate community linkages and strength. Everyone is an important participant in this annual rite. As Angelou describes it,

The missionary ladies of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church helped Momma prepare the pork for sausage. They squeezed their fat arms elbow deep in the ground meat, mixed it with gray nose-opening sage, pepper and salt, and made tasty little samples for all obedient children who brought wood for the slick black stove. Then men chopped off the larger pieces of meat and laid them in the smoke-house to begin the curling process. They opened the knucke of the hams with their deadly-looking knives, took out a certain round harmless bone (“it could make the meat go bad”) and rubbed salt, coarse brown salt that looked like fine gravel, into the flesh and the blood popped to the surface.28

In a very direct way, the church-related activity also speaks to the particularly American value of self-reliance, a value that is necessary for survival in a hostile social world. Unlike the White American, in order for the individual Black American to be self-reliant, he or she must rely on the community.29

Angelou's generalized description of a summer picnic fish fry conveys the vigorous solidarity of the entire Black community. Everyone is there: church groups, social groups (Elks, Eastern Stars, Masons, Knights of Columbus, Daughters of Pythias), teachers, farmers, field-workers. Free from their daily chores, excited children run about in wild play and “the sounds of tag beat through the trees.”30

Musicians perform, displaying their artistry with “cigar-box guitars, harmonicas, juice harps, combs wrapped in tissue papers, and even bathtub basses.”31 The harmony of a gospel group “float[s] over the music of the country singers and melt[s] into the songs of small children's ring games.”32 The amount and variety of food further underscore the importance of the event. The autobiographer recalls:

Pans of fried chicken, covered with dishtowels, sat under benches next to a mountain of potato salad crammed with hard-boiled eggs. … Homemade pickles and chow-chow, and baked country hams, aromatic with cloves and pineapples, vied for prominence. … On the barbecue pit, chickens and spareribs sputtered. … Orange sponge cakes and dark brown mounds dripping Hershey's chocolate stood layer to layer with ice-white coconuts and light brown caramels. Pound cakes sagged with their buttery weight. … And busy women in starched aprons salted and rolled … fish in corn meal, then dropped them in Dutch ovens trembling with boiling fat.33

Through such lyrical reminiscences of childhood, Angelou celebrates the richness and warmth of Southern Black life, and the bonds of community, with all of its possibilities for love and laughter, that often persist in the face of poverty and oppression. In Maya Angelou's vision, both with respect to the Black community and to herself, what is kept consistently in focus is the attempt to preserve and celebrate humanity in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Caged Bird testifies to the amazing resilience of Black Americans and their ability to cope with the inequities of American racism. The first volume of her autobiography bears witness to the sense of relationships in the Black community—the cooperative alliances that enable Blacks to survive, with grace and exuberance, the most difficult circumstances. For the young Maya, the Black Community is the essential community.

When Maya is seven years old, she sees her parents for the first time in her memory. Bailey, Sr., making an unexpected visit to Stamps, stuns the child by the reality of his presence. For the first time in her young life, she need create no elaborate fantasies about her father. Bailey, Sr., who has been described by others as a man who had respect for neither morals nor money,34 is an arrogant show-off, taller than anyone Maya has ever seen and with “the air of a man who [does] not believe what he [hears] or what he himself is [saying].”35 Yet Maya is fascinated by his ironic pretentiousness. In her fantasy world, her father lives richly, among orange groves and servants, in the kind of elegantly furnished mansions she has seen in the movies. In time, however, Maya learns that he is merely a doorman at the Breakers Hotel in Santa Monica, California. She also learns that her father's real purpose in coming to Stamps is to deliver her and Bailey to their mother in St. Louis. Maya is terrified by the thought of seeing her elusive mother. She wants to beg her grandmother to allow her to remain in Stamps, even if she must promise to do Bailey's chores and her own as well, but she does not have the nerve to try life without Bailey, who is overjoyed by the prospect of joining his “mother dear.” The day finally arrives when Maya, bidding a tearful farewell to Grandmother Henderson and Uncle Willie, must leave Stamps behind. A few days after the uneventful trip to St. Louis, Bailey, Sr. returns to California. Maya is neither glad nor sorry when this stranger leaves.

If Bailey, Sr. represents some distant world unknown to Maya, Vivian Baxter's world is equally foreign. Vivian Baxter, Maya's lively, beautiful mother, is bold, self-reliant, and unconventional. Although a trained surgical nurse, she does not work at her profession because neither the operating room nor the rigid eight-to-five schedule provides the excitement she craves. Rather, she cares for herself and children through liaisons with a variety of live-in “boyfriends” who furnish the necessities and through the extra money she earns cutting poker games in gambling parlors. Men are permitted to remain with Vivian Baxter only as long as they follow her strict code of conduct; one has been cut and another shot for failing to show proper respect for her prerogatives.

For Maya, Stamps and St. Louis stand in sharp contrast. In Stamps, there are Grandmother Henderson and the Store; there are also religious devotion and the acceptance of one's worldly and racial lot. In the closely knit rural community, Maya knows all the Black people in town, and they know her. For the young Maya, Stamps is a symbol of order; in fact, the orderliness of the store—the carefully arranged shelves, the counters, and the cutting boards—reflects the orderliness of her life in general. In St. Louis, however, Angelou is thrown into her mother's world of taverns, pool halls, gambling, fast living and fast loving. This is a far looser environment than Maya had ever known and one that is devoid of the customary laws that Grandmother Henderson had taught her to respect. The range of sanctioned behavior is also broader, individuals are less stringently controlled by moral laws or social pressures, and relations among individuals are less stable. Although Maya lives comfortably in St. Louis and is excited by many aspects of urban life, she remains a stranger among strangers, mainly because the urban community treats the individual as individual rather than as part of a group, and so is powerless to provide her the emotional security she needs.36 Moreover, having spent four years in the solitude of Stamps, Maya is dislocated by the strangeness of her new environment: the tremendous noise of the city, its “scurrying sounds,”37 its frightening claustrophobia. Grandmother Baxter's German accent and elegant manners are also unfamiliar. Her mother, aunts and uncles are equally unreal. St. Louis provides Maya neither sense of place nor permanence. Indeed, after only a few weeks there, she understands that it is not her real home:

In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis a few weeks. As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin Hood's forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed every day. I carried that same shield that I had used in Stamps: “I didn't come to stay.”38

Shifted from one temporary home to another, Maya develops a tough flexibility that is not only her protective “shield,” but also her means of dealing with an uncertain world. Angelou's evocation of the palpable strangeness of the city derives from her ability, as an artist, to maintain the childlike angle of vision in recreating this phase of her childhood.

Yet, for one brief moment, the child, deluded into a false security, fantasizes that she is at home, at last, with her real father. For that moment, Mr. Freeman, Vivian Baxter's boyfriend and someone whom Maya has come to love and trust, holds her close to him. Mr. Freeman's conscious violation of the child's trust, coupled by the child's own need for attention and physical closeness, leads to a further violation that the eight-year old Maya is too young to understand:

He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he'd never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled leaving me in a wet place, and stood up.39

In the past, Maya's world had included Bailey, Grandmother Henderson, Uncle Willie, reading books, and the Store. Now, for the first time, it includes physical contact; and, while not understanding what has taken place in her mother's bed, she is anxious to repeat the experience which has made her feel so loved and secure.

Many growing young girls, denied the emotional satisfaction of loving, concerned parents, look for emotional support at school or at play; and if they are lucky, they find something that moderates their emotional discontent. Maya, however, finds little compensation of this sort. Her autobiography is singularly devoid of references to rewarding peer associations during her eight-month stay in St. Louis. She is not only dislocated by her new environment, but is also alienated from any supporting peer relationships.

The second time Mr. Freeman embraces the eight-year old girl, he rapes her. The rape, an excruciatingly painful act which involves Maya in ambiguous complicity, produces confusion, shame, and guilt. The courtroom where Mr. Freeman's trial for rape is held would be imposing to a mature, self-confident adult, but it is shattering to the child whose confusion, shame and guilt are further compounded by the voyeuristic aspects of the open courtroom testimony. When Maya is unable to remember what Mr. Freeman was wearing when he raped her, the lawyer suggests that she, not the defendant, is to blame for her victimization. Bewildered and frightened, Maya denies that Mr. Freeman ever touched her before the rape—partly because, in her confusion, she is convinced of her own complicity in the two sexual episodes but more because of her life-long desire for her mother's love and approval:

I couldn't say yes and 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 did when she was angry. And all these 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 disappointed. …


… I looked at [Mr. Freeman's] heavy face trying to look as if he would have liked me to say No. I said no.


… The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn't get air … Our lawyer brought me off the stand to my mother's arms. The fact that I had arrived at my desired destination by lies made it less appealing to me.40

Later, when Mr. Freeman is found murdered, Maya is convinced that he is dead because she lied; that evil flows through her mouth, waiting to destroy any person she might talk to. To protect others, she convinces herself that she must stop talking: “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die like the Black fat slugs that only pretended.”41 Acting on this conviction, Maya becomes a voluntary mute, Mr. Freeman's death having provoked not only Maya's spiritual death but also her quasi-isolation from her world.

In Stamps, Maya could count on the unwavering support of Grandmother Henderson and the Black community. However, there is a surprising inability on the part of Vivian Baxter and her family to provide adequate emotional support for Maya or to understand the psychological difficulties of an eight-year-old who has been traumatized by rape. When Maya does not behave as the person they know and accept her to be, she is punished for being so arrogant that she will not speak to her family. On other occasions, she is thrashed by any relative who feels offended by her silence. When the family can no longer tolerate Maya's “grim presence,” Vivian Baxter again banishes Maya and Bailey to Stamps, Arkansas, fulfilling Maya's prophesy that she had not come to St. Louis to stay.

Maya welcomes her return to Stamps, where she finds comfort in the barrenness and solitude of a place where nothing happens. Of this Angelou writes:

After St. Louis, with its noise and activity, its trucks and buses, and loud family gatherings, I welcomed the obscure lanes and lonely bungalows set back deep in dirt yards.


The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life's inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the maps and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. …


Into this cocoon I crept.42

In this passage and, indeed, throughout her recaptured childhood years in Stamps, Angelou examines herself introspectively. Though, Angelou, the autobiographer, locates herself in the physical environment of her childhood—in a series of physical scenes—her inward retrospective musings and the interiority that she manages to capture so well are more significant to the reader's understanding of the autobiographer's private self than of the external phenomena from which the musings emerge.

Maya lives in “perfect personal silence”43 for nearly five years until she meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Stamps' Black intellectual, who will become for the adult Angelou her “measure of what a human being can be.”44 Mrs. Flowers throws Maya her “first life line”45 by accepting her as an individual, not in relation to another person. Moreover, Mrs. Flowers ministers to Maya's growing hunger and quest for individuality by giving her books of poetry, talking to her philosophically about books, and encouraging her to recite poems. Committing poems to memory, pondering them, recalling them when lonely, give Maya a sense of power within herself, a transcendence over her immediate environment.

Maya's “lessons in living” with Mrs. Flowers awaken her conscience, sharpen her perspective of her environment and of the relationship between Blacks and the larger society, and teach her something about the beauty and power of language. Emotionally and intellectually strengthened by this friendship, Maya begins to compose poetic verses and ring songs, and to keep a scrapbook journal in which she records her reactions to and impressions of people, places and events, and new ideas that she is introduced to by books. When she is not yet nine years old, she records her impressions of early pioneer life in Arkansas:

Such jolting, rumbling, squeaking and creaking! Such ringing of cowbells as the cattle plodded along! and dust—dust—so thick that your mouth was full of grit, your eyes were—oh, very dirty, and your hair was powdered with the reddish Arkansas dust. The sun was hot and the sweat was streaming down your face, streaking through the grime. But you were happy for you were on a great adventure. You and your father and mother, brothers and sisters, and many of your neighbors were moving from your old home in the East. You were going to settle on some rich land in Arkansas. And you were going there not on a train of railroad cars—for there were none—but in a train of covered wagons pulled by strong oxen.46

In this passage from Angelou's record of the historical self, one finds excellent documentation of the autobiographer's early facility with language and narrative form.

As Angelou chronicles her movements from innocence to awareness, from childhood to adolescence, there are certain social barriers that she must confront and overcome in order to maintain a sense of self and relative freedom.

For example, Angelou's first confrontation with a White person catapults her into a clearer awareness of social reality and into a growing consciousness of self-worth. This confrontation proves to be a major turning point in her life. During a brief time when she was eleven years old, Maya worked in the home of Mrs. Viola Cullinan, a wealthy, transplanted Virginian. With the arrogance of a Southern White woman whom neither custom nor tradition had taught to respect a Black person, Mrs. Cullinan insults Maya by calling her Mary rather than Marguerite, a name that Mrs. Cullinan considered too cumbersome. Mrs. Cullinan's attempt to change Maya's name for her own convenience echoes the larger tradition of American racism that attempts to prescribe the nature and limitations of a Black person's identity. In refusing to address Maya by her proper name, the symbol of her individuality and uniqueness, Mrs. Cullinan refuses to acknowledge her humanity. A sensitive, reflective nature, combined with an alert intelligence, enables Maya to comprehend the nature of this insult. She writes:

Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely constructed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots, and spooks.47

Maya strikes back, deliberately breaking several pieces of Mrs. Cullinan's heirloom china. In doing so, she affirms her individuality and value. Through this encounter, the young Maya learns that until the individual is willing to take a decisive step toward self-definition, refusing to compromise with insults, he or she remains in a cage. In short, the individual must resist society's effort to limit his or her aspirations. Only after Maya determines to risk Mrs. Cullinan's outrage and to defy the expectations of others is she able to begin to loose herself, psychologically, from the dehumanizing atmosphere of her environment.

Many American autobiographies besides Caged Bird, including The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Black Boy, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Elk Speaks, Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, and others, are structured around a narrative enactment of change on two levels: the personal and psychological on one hand, and the sociohistorical and intellectual on the other. Paradoxically, while Angelou is growing in confident awareness of her strength as an individual, she is also becoming increasingly more perceptive about her identity as a member of a oppressed racial group in Stamps. In Stamps, as throughout the South, religion, sports and education functioned in ways that encouraged the discriminated class to accept the status quo. But Angelou demonstrates how Blacks in Stamps subverted those institutions and used them to withstand the cruelty of the American experience.48

In a graphic description of a revival meeting, Angelou recalls her first observation of the relation between Blacks and religion. To the casual observer, the revivalists seem to “[bask] in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden”49 and to believe that “it was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time”50 on earth. Although the poor give thanks to the Lord for a life filled with the most meager essentials and a maximum amount of brute oppression, the church rituals create for them a temporary transcendence and an articulation of spirit. However, in this tightly written, emotionally charged scene, Angelou briefly records the joining point between the blues and religious tradition. Miss Grace, the good-time woman, is also conducting rituals of transcendence through her barrelhouse blues. The agony in religion and the blues is the connecting point:

A stranger to the music could not have made a distinction between the songs sung a few minutes before [in church] and those being danced to in the gay house by the railroad tracks. All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?51

Early on, the reader gleans that although the Joe Louis victories in the boxing ring in the 1930s were occasions for street celebrations that caused tens of thousands of Blacks to parade, sing, dance, and derive all the joy possible from these collective victories of the race, for Angelou, Joe Louis' victory over heavy-weight contender Primo Carnera was “a grotesque counterpoint to the normal way of life”52 in Arkansas. Angelou describes the scene that takes place in her grandmother's store on that night of the fight, vividly recapturing John Dunthey's style and language:

Louis is penetrating every block. … Louis sends a left to the body and it's the uppercut to the chin and the contender is dropping. He's on the canvas, ladies and gentlemen.”


Babies slid to the floor as women stood up and men leaned toward the radio.


“Here's the referee. He's counting, One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … Is the contender trying to get up again?”


All the men in the store shouted, “No.”


“—eight, nine, ten.” There were a few sounds from the audience, but they seemed to be holding themselves in against tremendous pressure.


“The fight is all over, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get the microphone over to the referee … Here he is. He's got the Brown Bomber's hand, he's holding it up … Here he is …”


Then the voice, husky and familiar, came to wash over us—“The winnah, and still heavyweight champeen of the world … Joe Louis.”


Champion of the world. A Black Boy. Some Black mother's son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank coca-colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightning in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.


It would take an hour or more before the people would leave the Store and head for home. Those who lived too far had made arrangements to stay in town. 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 has proved that we were the strongest people in the world.53

Angelou even remembers her graduation from elementary school not as the customarily exciting and happy occasion for the young graduates and their families and friends, but as a dramatization of the painful injustices of a segregated society and an underscoring of the powerlessness of Blacks within that society. As she listens to the insulting words of an oblivious and insensitive White speaker, the young girl perceives a terrifying truth about her racial self and about the desperation of impotence, especially about the impotence of Black people in the South of the 1930s:

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. We should all be dead.54

Yet, her momentarily mixed feelings of despair, shame and anger on her graduation day at the seemingly hopeless future for young Blacks in racist America are surmounted by her pride in Blacks when the Negro National Anthem is sung. As Maya consciously joins the class and audience in singing, she unconsciously, from her perspective in time, also predicts her own future as a poet:55

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 wonder, beautiful Negro race.


Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the only night made less lonely by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?


If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers).56

But after Grandmother Henderson and Maya are insultingly ejected from the office of a White dentist and told that he would rather stick his hand “in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's,”57 the child can only compensate for such painful impotence by fantasizing power and triumphant revenge.

Angelou's complex awareness of what Black men, women and children encountered in their struggles for self-hood is apparent in each of these incidents. Such experiences are recorded not simply as historical events, but as symbolic revelations of Angelou's inner world. They are social, geographic and psychological occasions. The implication that one's powerlessness in the larger world may need to be experienced and overcome in the process of personal development is very clear.

In 1941, when Maya is thirteen, she and Bailey move to Oakland and later San Francisco to live with their mother whom they have not seen in six years. By this time, Vivian Baxter has married Daddy Clidell, a gambler and respected businessman, who will soon become “the first father [Maya] would know.”58 For a while, Maya re-experiences some of the personal dislocation already felt so acutely in Stamps and St. Louis. But in time “the air of collective displacement [and] the impermanence of life in wartime”59 dissipate her sense of not belonging. Of this she writes:

In San Francisco, for the first time I perceived myself as part of something. … The city became for me the idea of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness.60

In San Francisco, the tender-hearted girl changes into another imagined self: a compound of her mother, Mrs. Flowers, and Miss Kirwin of Washington High School.

Just as Stamps and St. Louis stood in sharp contrast, so do San Francisco and Stamps. From her prosperous stepfather, Maya receives a basic ghetto education:

He owned apartment buildings and, later, pool halls, and was famous for being the rarity “a man of honor.” He didn't suffer, as many “honest men” do, from the detestable righteousness that diminishes their virtue. He knew cards and men's hearts. So during the age when Mother was exposing us to certain facts of life, like personal hygiene, proper posture, table manners, good restaurants and tipping practice, Daddy Clidell taught me to play poker, blackjack, tonk and high, low, Jick, Jack and the Game. He wore expensively tailored suits and a large yellow diamond stickpin. Except for the jewelry, he was a conservative dresser and carried himself with the conscious pomp of a man of secure means.61

In San Francisco, Maya is also introduced to a colorful cast of urban street characters (i.e., Stonewall Jimmy, Just Black, Cool Clyde, Tight Coat and Red Leg) who make their living through gambling and trickery. Here she learns a new morality: the Black American ghetto ethic by which “that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table … by ingenuity and courage, is able to take of himself a Lucullan feast.”62 Mr. Leg's story, for example, is an excellent portrayal of such an individual and a brilliant recapturing of the trickster motif found in African and Afro-American literature. Through trickery, Mr. Red Leg, a con artist and a hero-figure of Black American urban folklore, outwits his White antagonist. In doing so, he symbolizes the strength, dignity, and courage Black Americans are able to manifest in spite of their circumscribed lives, although they may function as miscreants, not only in the eyes of the White world but also to the preachers and matriarchs within the Black community. Black men like Mr. Red Leg, who use “their intelligence to pry open the door of rejection and [who] not only [become] wealthy but [get] some revenge in the bargain,”63 are heroes to Maya and her “Black associates.”64

Three other experiences further dramatize Angelou's awareness of self and her world, changing with sometimes bewildering speed, and help her to work out new patterns of selfhood and personal direction.

When she accompanies “Daddy Bailey” on a vacation to Mexico, he, having drunk quantities of tequila at a roadside bar where he has taken Maya, goes off with “his woman,” leaving Maya with strangers and no money. Hours later, he returns, too drunk to drive. Rather than spending the night in the car in Mexico, Maya, who has never driven a car, manages to drive down the circuitous mountain road some fifty miles, to cross the border, and to return them safely to California. Angelou recalls:

The challenge was exhilarating. It was me, Marguerite, against the elemental opposition. As I twisted the steering wheel and forced the accelerator to the floor, I was controlling Mexico, and might and aloneness and inexperienced youth and Bailey Johnson, Sr., and death and insecurity, and even gravity.65

Unlike any of her former experiences in Stamps, this single experience proves to Maya that she can indeed have power over her life and destiny.

Soon after their return to California, there is a bitter argument between Maya and Dolores (her father's current “girlfriend”), who wants Bailey's daughter out of her home and her life. Urging Maya to return to her mother, Dolores calls Vivian Baxter a whore. When Maya slaps her, Dolores cuts Maya severely. After taking her to one friend for emergency medical care, Bailey, Sr., leaves her with a second friend. Knowing that violence would ensue if she returned home and her mother learned that she had been cut, Maya leaves without telling her father or his friend, and after wandering about San Diego for some while, joins a junkyard commune of homeless children whom she describes as “the silt of war frenzy.”66 After she has spent a month in the commune, Maya's thought processes have altered so significantly that she is hardly able to recognize her former self. Her peers' unquestioning acceptance dislodges her familiar feelings of insecurity; moreover, the unrestrained life that she experiences within the group expands her spiritual horizons and “initiates [her] into the brotherhood of man.”67 The gratitude Angelou owes those who befriended her on her passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood will forever include her junkyard family:

After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly out of the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life.68

Time and time again, Angelou brings us to the question of human relationships. Through the junkyard experience, she learns that, beyond the barriers of race, all men and women are the same; they share the same fears, the same loneliness, and the same hopes. The commune experience also confirms Angelou's determination to exercise further control over her being and helps her to establish a valuable new direction for her personal growth. Months later when Angelou becomes the first Black hired as a conductor on the San Francisco streetcars, her determination and success in this venture can be directly attributed to these pivotal experiences in Mexico and California.

Angelou must confront and overcome one other obstacle before she can begin to know herself. This problem relates to numerous questions about her sexuality that plague her when she is convinced, after her third reading of The Well of Loneliness, that she is verging on lesbianism: Why are her voice so heavy and her hands and feet so far from being feminine and dainty? Why are her breasts so sadly underdeveloped? Is she a lesbian? Do lesbians bud gradually “or burst into being with a suddenness that dismayed them as much as it repelled society?”69 For weeks, Angelou seeks answers to these questions, probing into unsatisfying books and into her own unstocked mind without finding a morsel of peace or understanding. When she finally approaches her mother to seek answers to the questions about her sexuality and about the disturbing physical changes that are taking place in her body, Vivian Baxter gently reassures her daughter that the physical changes are just human nature. Not altogether convinced by her mother's assurances, Maya decides that she needs a boyfriend to clarify her position to the world and to herself. From her point of view, “a boyfriend's acceptance of [her] would guide [her] into the strange and exotic lands of frills and femininity”70 and at the same time, confirm her heterosexuality. But among her associates, Maya cannot find an interested partner. Taking matters into her own hands, she decides to offer herself to a neighborhood youth; and, at sixteen, she becomes pregnant, a surprise consequence of a single, impersonal, unsatisfactory experiment.

Like the “aloneness” that she has experienced most of her life, Maya is literally “alone” during most of her pregnancy, for she manages to keep this fact hidden from her mother, her teachers, and her friends for eight months and one week. When Vivian Baxter learns from Maya that she will deliver a child shortly, she nurtures her daughter with understanding and support and, in doing so, becomes the compassionate, loving mother of Maya's childhood fantasies. The birth of Maya's son is a celebration of a new life, of Maya's own rebirth as a young mother, and of Maya's discovery of her creative self. But it is also an ironic outcome of a completely loveless and casual relationship.

The final scene of Caged Bird is richly symbolic. Maya is reluctant to let her three-week old baby sleep with her because she is certain that she will roll over in the night and crush him. But Vivian Baxter ignores her daughter's fears and places the baby beside his mother. The next morning, Vivian Baxter is standing over her daughter. Under the tent of blanket which Maya has devised with her elbow and forearm, the baby sleeps soundly. Vivian Baxter whispers to her daughter, “See, you don't have to think about the right thing. If you are for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”71 This scene verbalizes Vivian Baxter's faith in Maya's instinctive qualities of motherhood and Maya's acceptance of herself as a creative, life-giving force.

By the end of Caged Bird, the displaced young Maya has found a place and has discovered a vital dimension of herself. No longer need she ask, “What you looking at me for?,” or fantasize a reality other than her own. By the end of the autobiography, Angelou, the young adult, has succeeded in freeing herself from her cage by assuming control of her life and fully accepting her womanhood. Indeed, as Sidonie Smith posits, with the birth of her child, Angelou is herself born into a mature engagement with the forces of life. In welcoming that struggle, Angelou refuses to live a death of quiet submission:72

Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.73

Roy Pascal observes that autobiography acquires its shape through the autobiographer's consciousness of what the child ultimately became. Angelou is able to confront her memories of her own past with honesty, humor and irony because they form a necessary part of her spiritual and intellectual development. She believes, as most autobiographers do, that memory affords access to the past that is worth revealing and that an understanding of the human condition—not information about a life, but insight into its process—is intrinsically valuable.

The narrative voice at work in Caged Bird is that of the older autobiographer who is not only aware of the journey, but also enlarged by it, an achievement that is emphasized by the affirming nature of the work. In Caged Bird, Maya Angelou undergoes the archetypal American journey of initiation and discovery.

Notes

  1. Maya Angelou, personal interview, December 5, 1984.

  2. Robert A. Gross, “Growing up Black,” Newsweek, 75 (March 1, 1970), p. 90.

  3. Edmund Fuller, “The Bookshelf: The Making of a Black Artist,” Wall Street Journal, 16 April 1970, p. 16.

  4. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 3.

  5. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 3.

  6. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 4.

  7. Arensberg, “Death as Metaphor, p. 278.

  8. William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 49.

  9. Maya Angelou, letter to Rosa Guy, July 22, 1968, Maya Angelou Papers, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

  10. Sidonie Ann Smith, “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance,” Southern Humanities Review, 7 (1973), p. 368.

  11. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 6.

  12. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 7.

  13. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 51.

  14. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 42.

  15. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 50–51.

  16. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 55.

  17. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 8.

  18. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 24.

  19. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 46.

  20. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 30.

  21. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 31.

  22. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 32.

  23. Butterfield, Black Autobiography, pp. 211–212.

  24. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 110.

  25. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 9.

  26. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 9.

  27. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 9–10.

  28. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 23–24.

  29. See Elizabeth A. Schultz's discussion of this point in “The Insistence Upon Community in the Contemporary Afro-American Novel.” College English, 41.2 (October 1979), pp. 170–184.

  30. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 133.

  31. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 134.

  32. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 135.

  33. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 134–135.

  34. Dr. Lindsay Johnson, personal interview, June 16, 1983.

  35. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 53.

  36. See Donald B. Gibson, “Individualism and Community in Black History and Fiction,” Black American Literature Forum, 9.4 (Winter 1977), pp. 123–129.

  37. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 68.

  38. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 68.

  39. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 71.

  40. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 82–83.

  41. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 85.

  42. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 86.

  43. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 86.

  44. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 91.

  45. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 92.

  46. Maya Angelou, scrapbook compiled during school year 1936–37, Maya Angelou Papers, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

  47. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 106.

  48. For a fuller discussion of this idea, see Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980), ed. Mari Evans (New York: Doubleday, 1984), pp. 12–14.

  49. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 127.

  50. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 128.

  51. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 128.

  52. Sidonie Smith, Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1974), p. 130.

  53. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 131–132.

  54. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 176.

  55. Elizabeth Schultz, “To Be Black and Blue,” p. 88.

  56. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 179–180.

  57. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 184.

  58. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 203.

  59. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 205.

  60. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 206.

  61. Angelou, Caged Bird, pp. 213–214.

  62. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 219.

  63. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 218.

  64. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 219.

  65. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 232.

  66. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 247.

  67. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 247.

  68. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 247.

  69. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 267.

  70. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 272–273.

  71. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 281.

  72. Smith, Where I'm Bound, p. 134.

  73. Angelou, Caged Bird, p. 264.

Opal Moore (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Moore, Opal. “Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, pp. 306–16. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Moore addresses several of the major criticisms against I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, including the charge that the story is too honest and brutal for young audiences.]

I bring the dreaded disease. I encourage their children to open their hearts to the “dark” side. To know the fear in them. To know the rage. To know the repression that has lopped off their brains—

—Toi Derricotte “From The Black Notebooks”

There is, it seems, a widespread movement afoot to assert the innocence of children even as we deny or sabotage that innocence. There is what appears to be a head-in-the-sand impulse to insist upon this innocence by simply refusing to acknowledge its non-existence. Never mind the “mean streets,” never mind the high teen pregnancy rates and drug use, or the phenomenal school dropout rates, or spiraling teen suicide statistics—never mind these real dangers to childhood. There are agencies at work to shield these unprotected children from books that might reveal to them the workings of their own minds and hearts, books that engender the agony of thought and the fearfulness of hope. If we cannot protect children from experience, should we protect them from knowing?

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 schools (Graham 26, 1).1Caged 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 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.

(61)

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.”

(61)

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 period, 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, “I wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre (Conversations, 156). 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.

(70–71)

To protect herself, Marguerite lies: “Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be No. Everyone except Mr. Freeman and me” (71).

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: should Mr. Freeman have been forgiven for his crime? (After all, he appears to be very sorry. When Marguerite awakens from the daze of trauma, Mr. Freeman is tenderly bathing her: “His hands shook” (66). Which is the greater crime, Mr. Freeman's rape of Marguerite, or Marguerite's lying about the nature of their relationship (which might be seen as having resulted in Mr. Freeman's death)? What should be the penalty for rape? Is the community's murderous action against Mr. Freeman's unthinkable crime merely a more expedient form of the state's statutes on capital punishment? Might we say he was “judged by a jury of his peers”? Which is the greater crime—if Marguerite had told the truth and Mr. Freeman had been acquitted, or Marguerite's lie, and Mr. Freeman's judgement by an outraged community? What is the truth? Didn't Marguerite actually tell the basic truth, based on her innocence, based on her inability to understand Mr. Freeman's motives? As Maya Angelou might say, “Those are questions, frightful questions, too intimate and obscenely probing” (Black Women Writers, 3)2 Yet, how can we deny young readers, expected to soon embark upon their own life-altering decision-making, the opportunity to engage in questions so relevant as these. How can we continue to forearm them solely with t-shirt slogans?

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” (72).

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 multi-dimensional 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 (77–87) 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.

This extended look at the scene most often censored by high school administrators and most often criticized by parents should reveal that Angelou's Caged Bird, though easily read, is no “easy” read. This is, perhaps, part of the reason for the objections of parents who may feel that the materials are “too sophisticated” for their children. We should be careful, as teachers, designers of curriculum, and concerned parents, not to fall into the false opposition of good vs. easy. What is easier for a student (or for a teacher) is not necessarily good. In this vein, those parents who are satisfied to have this work removed from required lists but offered on “suggested” lists should ask themselves whether they are giving their kids the kind of advice that was so useless to Maya Angelou: “keep your legs closed and don't let nobody see your pocketbook.” Without the engagement of discussion, Caged Bird might do what parents fear most—raise important issues while leaving the young reader no avenue to discover his or her relationship to these ideas. Perhaps the parents are satisfied to have controversial works removed to the “suggested” list because they are convinced that their children will never read anything that is not required. If that is their hope, we have more to worry about than booklists.

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.3 Educators have begun to address the importance of the preparation of teachers for the presentation of literature of the caliber of Caged Bird which is a challenge to students, but also to teachers who choose to bring this work into the classroom.4Caged 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” (Black Women Writers, 9). 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 Bald win 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.

Notes

  1. Joyce Graham, in her dissertation “The Freeing of Maya Angelou's Caged Bird,” offers a comprehensive overview of the history of censorship efforts directed specifically against Caged Bird: the issues and arguments raised in connection with the teaching of the work, a look at the National Council of Teachers of English's efforts to provide guidelines for the improvement of teacher preparation in the teaching of literature, and a case study of one well documented censorship challenge. Dr. Graham also includes an interview with Dr. Angelou discussing the nature and motive of censorship. This timely examination of the rising fear of literature in schools provides an invaluable look at the parents and administrators behind the news reports on censorship challenges.

  2. Dr. Angelou makes this comment in response to her own questions: Why and how frequently does a writer write? What shimmering goals dance before the writer's eyes, desirable, seductive, but maddeningly out of reach? What happens to the ego when one dreams of training Russian bears to dance the Watusi and is barely able to teach a friendly dog to shake hands?

  3. In “The Other Crisis in American Education,” college professor Daniel J. Singal discusses the decline of competency among the “highest cohort of achievers,” those students who eventually apply to America's most prestigious colleges and universities. This general failing in the achievement levels of juniors and seniors is attributed to the assigning of “easier,” less challenging reading materials, and the failure of teachers to design written and oral activities that demand higher levels of comprehension. As a result, students entering college are unable to function adequately in their coursework. Singal quotes a college professor: “No one reads for nuance. They [students] pay no attention to detail.” Says Singal, “I have been amazed at how little students have managed to glean from a book I know they have read. … Twelve to fifteen books over a fifteen-week semester used to be the rule of thumb at selective colleges. Today it is six to eight books, and they had better be short texts, written in relatively simple English.” In other words, college professors are simply unable to assign traditional work loads given the skill levels of their students.

  4. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard have collected a number of essays on the images of African-Americans in literature, and discussions related to children's responses to the literature. Some of the essays address the matter of censorship as it relates to racist depictions in literature. Paul Deane provides a look at the seldom acknowledged racist images to be found in the traditional serial novels which are typically considered to be wholesome, completely unobjectionable adolescent fare.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1969.

———. “Shades and Slashes of Light.” In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. 1–3.

Cudloe, Selwyn R. “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement.” Black Women Writers. 6–24.

Deane, Paul C. “The Persistence of Uncle Tom: An Examination of the Image of the Negro in Children's Fiction Series.” The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, 2nd ed. Eds. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 162–168.

Derricote, Toi. “From the Black Notebook.” Kenyon Review 13.4 (Fall 1991): 27–31.

Graham, Joyce L. “Freeing Maya Angelou's Caged Bird.” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Newman Library, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, VA, 1991).

Singal, Daniel J. “The Other Crisis in American Education.” The Atlantic Monthly, (Nov. 1991): 59–74.

Tate, Claudia. “Maya Angelou.” Black Women Writers at Work. (New York: Continuum, 1983): 1–11. rpt. in Conversations with Maya Angelou. Ed. Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. 146–156.

Pierre A. Walker (essay date October 1995)

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SOURCE: Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.College Literature 22, no. 3 (October 1995): 91–109.

[In the following essay, Walker evaluates the political nature and influence of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

Maya Angelou has told in interviews how Robert Loomis, her eventual Random House editor, goaded her into writing autobiography, teasing her with the challenge of writing literary autobiography. Considering herself a poet and playwright, she had repeatedly refused Loomis's requests that she write an autobiography until he told her that it was just as well: “‘He … said that to write an autobiograph—as literature—is almost impossible. I said right then I'd do it’” (“Maya Angelou,” with Hitt 211). Angelou often admits that she cannot resist a challenge; however, it was not the challenge of writing autobiography per se that Angelou could not resist (and that led to the 1970 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but the challenge implied in Loomis's remark about the difficulty of writing autobiography “as literature.”1

Angelou does not elaborate on how she distinguishes literary autobiography from any other kind of autobiography, and of course, for a poststructuralist, the challenge to write literary rather than “ordinary” autobiography is meaningless because there is no difference between the two (see Eagleton 201). For a formalist aesthetic, however, the distinctive qualities and characteristics of literary or poetic language as opposed to ordinary language are central operative concerns (see Brooks 729–31, Shklovsky 12, Fish 68–69). Cleanth Brooks's belief that “the parts of a poem are related to each other organically, and related to the total theme indirectly” (730) was a primary tenet of interpretation for American New Critics, ultimately related to their determination to distinguish literary from ordinary language. Poststructuratism in its most vehemently anti-formalist manifestations usually belittles Brooks's beliefs in organic unity and in the uniqueness of literary language, but criticisms of formalism, and of “literature” as a distinct and privileged category, so typical of much poststructuralist theorizing, become specially problematic in relation to African-American literature.

Many African-American texts were written to create a particular political impact. As a result, one can hardly ignore either the political conditions in which the slave narratives and Richard Wright's early works, for example, were composed or the political impact their authors (and editors and publishers, at least of the slave narratives) intended them to have. Even African-American texts that are not obviously part of a protest tradition are received in a political context, as is clear from the tendency in much critical commentary on Zora Neale Hurston to demonstrate an elusive element of protest in her novels.

So important is the political to the experience of African-American literature that it comes as no surprise that the increasing incorporation of the African-American literary tradition into mainstream academic literary studies since 1980 coincides exactly with the increasingly greater significance of the political in the prevailing critical paradigm: what better for a political literary criticism to address than an overtly political literature?

The problem is that African-American literature has, on more than one occasion, relied on confirming its status as literature to accomplish its political aims. Since slavery relied on a belief that those enslaved were not really human beings, slave narrators responded by writing books that emphasized the fact that they themselves were humans who deserved to be treated as such. Since emancipation, African-American authors have used the same strategy to fight the belief in racial hierarchies that relegated them to second-class citizen status. One way to do this was to produce “high art,” which was supposed to be one of the achievements of the highest orders of human civilization. African-American poetry provides many examples of this strategy: Claude McKay's and Countee Cullen's reliance on traditional, European poetic forms and James Weldon Johnson's “O Black and Unknown Bards.” Cullen's “Yet Do I Marvel,” for instance, relies on recognizable English “literary” features: Shakespearean sonnet form, rhyme, meter, references to Greek mythology, and the posing of a theological question as old as the Book of job and as familiar as William Blake's “The Tyger.”

Thus for a critical style to dismiss the closely related categories of form and of literature is to relegate to obscurity an important tradition of African-American literature and an important political tool of the struggle in the United States of Americans of African descent. This is clearly true in respect to Caged Bird, which displays the kind of literary unity that would please Brooks, but to the significant political end of demonstrating how to fight racism. Angelou wrote Caged Bird in the late 1960s, at the height of the New Criticism, and therefore in order for it to be the literary autobiography Loomis referred to, Angelou's book had to display features considered at the time typical of literature, such as organic unity. This is a political gesture, since in creating a text that satisfies contemporary criteria of “high art,” Angelou underscores one of the book's central themes: how undeservedly its protagonist was relegated to second-class citizenship in her early years. To ignore form in discussing Angelou's book, therefore, would mean ignoring a critical dimension of its important political work.

Because scholarly discussions of Angelou's autobiographical works have only appeared in any significant number in the last fifteen years, Caged Bird and her other books have avoided—or, depending on one's view, been spared—the kind of formal analysis typically associated with New Criticism or Structuralism.2 Scholarly critics of Caged Bird, often influenced by feminist and African-American studies, have focused on such issues as whether the story of Angelou's young protagonist is personal or universal, or on race, gender, identity, displacement, or a combination of these. In relation to these issues, they discuss important episodes like the scene with the “powhitetrash” girls, young Maya's rape and subsequent muteness, her experience with Mrs. Flowers, the graduation, the visit to the dentist, Maya's month living in a junkyard, or her struggle to become a San Francisco street-car conductor.3 What they do not do is analyze these episodes as Angelou constructed them—often juxtaposing disparate incidents within an episode—and arranged and organized them, often undermining the chronology of her childhood story and juxtaposing the events of one chapter with the events of preceding and following ones so that they too comment on each other. The critics do not explore how Angelou, who has never denied the principle of selection in the writing of autobiography,4 shaped the material of her childhood and adolescent life story in Caged Bird to present Maya's first sixteen years, much as a bildungsroman would, as a progressive process of affirming identity, learning about words, and resisting racism.5 What scholars have focused on in Caged Bird does merit attention, but an attention to the formal strategies Angelou uses to emphasize what the book expresses about identity and race reveals a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression, a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest.

The progression from rage and indignation to subtle resistance to active protest gives Caged Bird a thematic unity that stands in contrast to the otherwise episodic quality of the narrative. To claim thematic unity is to argue that form and content work together, an assertion that is an anathema to much current literary theory. However, the formal in Caged Bird is the vehicle of the political, and not analyzing this text formally can limit one's appreciation of how it intervenes in the political. Critics should not focus on the political at the expense of the formal but instead should see the political and the formal as inextricably related. Indeed, some of the most well-received works on American literature in the last decade offer compelling demonstrations of such a symbiosis of form and content. Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs and Walter Benn Michaels' The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, for instance, are exemplary instances of new historicism or cultural criticism, but they nevertheless integrate virtuosic close formal analyses of literary texts into their overall projects.6

Caged Bird's commentators have discussed how episodic the book is, but these episodes are crafted much like short stories, and their arrangement throughout the book does not always follow strict chronology.7 Nothing requires an autobiography to be chronological, but an expectation of chronology on the reader's part is normal in a text that begins, as Caged Bird does, with earliest memories. Nevertheless, one of the most important early episodes in Caged Bird comes much earlier in the book than it actually did in Angelou's life: the scene where the “powhitetrash” girls taunt Maya's grandmother takes up the book's fifth chapter, but it occurred when Maya “was around ten years old” (23), two years after Mr. Freeman rapes her (which occurs in the twelfth chapter).

Situating the episode early in the book makes sense in the context of the previous chapters: the third chapter ends with Angelou describing her anger at the “used-to-be-sheriff” who warmed her family of an impending Klan ride (14–15), and the fourth chapter ends with her meditation on her early inability to perceive white people as human (20–21). The scene with the “powhitetrash” girls follows this (24–27), indicating how non-human white people can be. But if that was all that motivated the organization of her episodes, Angelou could as easily have followed the meditation on white people's non-humanity with the episode where young Maya breaks the china of her white employer, Mrs. Cullinan. What really organizes chapters three through five is that Angelou presents the futility of indignation and the utility of subtle resistance as ways of responding to racism. The scene with the ex-sheriff comes at the beginning of this sequence and only leaves Maya humiliated and angry:

If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff's act of kindness, I would be unable to say anything in his behalf. His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan's coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear.

(14)

The scene with the “powhitetrash” girls causes Maya to react with the same helpless anger and humiliation, but through the response of her grandmother Henderson (whom she calls Momma) to the girls, rudeness and crudity, Maya learns there can be a better and more effective way to respond.

At first, Maya's reaction to the “powhitetrash” girls is like her reaction to the used-to-be sheriff: rage, indignation, humiliation, helplessness. When the girls ape her grandmother's posture, Maya weeps, thinks of getting her uncle's rifle, and wants to throw lye and pepper on them and to scream at them “that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods” (24–25). When they leave and Momma politely calls good-bye to them, Maya's rage peaks:

I burst. A firecracker July-the-Fourth burst. How could Momma call them Miz? The mean nasty things. Why couldn't she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them breasting the hill? What did she prove? And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz?

(26)

But once the girls leave, young Maya realizes that her grandmother has achieved something “Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand … Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won” (26–27). Angelou claims that her ten-year-old self could not fully understand what had happened, though she did understand that there had been a contest of wills and that her grandmother had won it.

The young girl can be only vaguely conscious of how to comprehend the nature of the contest, but her next act and the organization of the whole chapter indicate nonetheless how readers should comprehend it. Angelou's description of the “powhitetrash” girls emphasizes their dirtiness. They are “grimy, snotty-nosed girls” (23), and “The dirt of [their] cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms and faces to make them all of a piece” (25). In contrast to this, Maya's household is a model of cleanliness. The first thing Momma tells Maya after the “powhitetrash” girls have left is to wash her face (26). This seems appropriate because of how much Maya had been crying, but its real significance is apparent when considered in the context of the chapter's beginning and of what Maya does at the end of the chapter. The chapter begins: “Thou shall not be dirty, and Thou shall not be impudent' were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation,” and the two subsequent paragraphs recount the ends to which Momma went to ensure her grandchildren's cleanliness (21). At first glance, this would appear to have nothing to do with the pain and humiliation of racism. But what the entire chapter demonstrates and what the ten-year-old Maya vaguely understands is that cleanliness, racism, and her grandmother's “victory” over the “powhitetrash” girls have everything to do with each other. Maya would seem to have understood this—even though the adult Angelou claims she did not—for once she has washed her face, without being told to do so, she rakes the trampled front yard into a pattern that her grandmother calls “right pretty” (27).8

Maya and Momma demonstrate that, unlike the white trash girls, they are neither dirty nor impudent. This is where the victory lies. Part of it consists of Momma's resisting the white girls, attempts to goad her into descending to their level of impudence. But another part of the victory lies in maintaining personal dignity through the symbolic importance of cleanliness and politeness. The victory will not of itself bring about the downfall of segregation which is perhaps why some critics see Grandmother Henderson as ultimately helpless against racist oppression [see Kent 76, and Neubauer 118]), but it does allow Momma and Maya to be proud of themselves. By demonstrating their own cleanliness and politeness, Maya and her grandmother establish their family's respectability in the face of racism and subtly throw the attempt to degrade them back on their oppressor. Furthermore, there is a more effective strategy for reacting to racism and segregation than rage and indignation, a strategy of subtle resistance, what Dolly McPherson calls “the dignified course of silent endurance” (33). Later episodes demonstrate the limitations of subtle resistance, but one should not underestimate its powers: without risking harm to life, liberty, or property, Momma is able to preserve her human dignity in the face of the white girls' attempts to belittle her. It may be all that she can do in the segregated South at the time, but it is something. What is more, as Angelou subsequently shows, it serves as a basis from which Maya can later move to actively protesting and combating racism.

An important feature of the chapter is that Angelou organizes it like a short story. It begins where it ends, with cleanliness and raking the yard bracketing the scene with the white trash girls, and it leaves the reader to work out the relationship between the confrontation with the girls and the cleaning of the yard. Because of this organization, the chapter becomes more than just a narration of bigoted behavior and Momma's and Maya's responses to it: “Such experiences,” says McPherson, are recorded not simply as historical events, but as symbolic revelations of Angelou's inner world” (49). The “powhitetrash” chapter takes on the additional dimension of a lesson in the utility of endowing everyday activities such as washing, raking a yard, or minding one's manners with symbolic value as a way of resisting bigotry. Making every minute of the day a symbolic means of fighting segregation in turn means that segregation is not a helpless and hopeless situation.

Angelou organizes the fifteenth chapter, the one about Mrs. Flowers, in a similarly tight fashion, interrelating the themes of racial pride, identity, and the power of words that run throughout. The positive effect that the attention of the elegant Mrs. Flowers has on the insecurity and identity crisis of young Maya is obvious.9 By helping Maya to begin to have some self-confidence, Mrs. Flowers contributes to the young girl's affirmation of her identity: “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected … for just being Marguerite Johnson. … she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book” (85). Such respect and affection from an older person Maya admired surely had an important positive effect on a young girl suffering from the guilt and self-loathing that resulted from being raped by her mother's boyfriend. It is no wonder Angelou feels that Mrs. Flowers “threw me my first life line” (77).

While the Mrs. Flowers chapter seems, at first glance, not to have much to do with the politics of racism, this important step in Maya's sense of identity has everything to do with race. Since she had been twice sent away by her parents to live with her grandmother, it is no surprise that Maya had an insecurity and identity problem. in the opening pages of the book, Maya suffered from a strong case of racial self-hatred, fantasizing that she was “really white,” with “light-blue eyes” and “long and blond” hair (2). At that point, Maya entirely separates her sense of self from her sense of race, and this is part of her identity crisis, since she refuses to accept being who she is and hankers after a foreign identity that is a compound of received ideas of white feminine beauty. By the end of the book, the opposite is the case. When the white secretary of the San Francisco street-car company repeatedly frustrates her attempts for a job interview, Maya is at first tempted not to take it personally: “The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites … I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer.” But then Maya decides that the rebuffs, which have everything to do with her race, also have everything to do with her personally, and this is because her personal identity and her racial identity cannot be entirely separated: “The whole charade we had played out in that crummy waiting room had directly to do with me, Black, and her, white” (227). Attaining the street-car conductor's job becomes not only a victory for civil rights, as a result, but also a personal victory for Maya's sense of self. One of the crucial transition points in this evolution over the course of the entire book from the total separation of self-image and race to the connection of the two comes in the Mrs. Flowers chapter, for not only does Mrs. Flowers make Maya feel liked and respected, but “she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself” (79).10 This is the first statement of black racial pride in the book, but others appear later: Joe Louis's victory, which “proved that we were the strongest people in the world” (115), and Maya's conclusion at the end of the graduation scene that “I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race” (156).

The Mrs. Flowers chapter emphasizes black racial pride by combining two apparently disparate episodes on the basis of their thematic affinity, much as the “powhitetrash” chapter did. Here the affinity is not cleanliness but the power of words, a theme central to African-American autobiography, from the slave narratives to Richard Wright's Black Boy and beyond. The importance of the power of words, in themselves and in poetry, and by implication, the importance of literature run throughout Caged Bird,11 especially after the rape, when Maya fears that her lie at Mr. Freeman's trial caused his death. Black Boy demonstrates the negative power of words each time Wright is abused for-not saying the right thing,12 yet the book concludes on a positive note when Wright realizes that he can harness the power of words to his own artistic and political ends. Much the same thing happens in Caged Bird. Maya refuses to speak because she fears the potentially fatal power of words, but throughout the second half of the book she acknowledges that the imagination can harness the power of words to great ends. One of the high points in this realization comes at the end of the graduation scene, when the audience, having been insulted by a white guest speaker, lifts its morale by singing James Weldon Johnson's “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing” (155). Maya realizes that she had never heard it before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them.” and this leads her to appreciate the African-American poetic tradition as she never had before (and Angelou expresses that appreciation with an allusion to another Johnson poem): “Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?” (156). Because Johnson's words, like Angelou's story, are gathered “from the stuff of the black experience, with its suffering and its survival,” to use Keneth Kinnamon's words, the singing of “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing” at the end of the graduation episode “is a paradigm of Angelou's own artistic endeavor in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (132–33).

Mrs. Flowers lays the groundwork for this later appreciation of the power of the poetic word by explicitly stating the lesson of the positive power of words in her conversation with the ten-year-old Maya (her message is further emphasized because the main point of her invitation and attention to the mute girl is to convince her to use words again). “[B]ear in mind,” Mrs. Flowers tells Maya, “language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone that separates him from the lower animals. … Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning” (82). Mrs. Flowers's speech and her reading from Dickens themselves make Maya appreciate poetry—“I heard poetry for the first time in my life” (84), she says about Mrs. Flowers's reading—and the spoken word, but Angelou arranges the entire chapter to emphasize the power of words. The chapter begins with a description of Mrs. Flowers and her elegant command of standard English, which contrasts in their conversations with Momma's heavy dialect, much to Maya's shame: “Shame made me want to hide my face. … Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, ‘How are you, Mrs. Flowers?’ … ‘Brother and Sister Wilcox is sho'ly the meanest—’ ‘Is,’ Momma? ‘Is’? Oh, please, not ‘is,’ Momma, for two or more” (78–79). As a result, Angelou has focused the chapter on the importance of words and their pronunciation, even in its very first pages, before Maya enters Mrs. Flowers's house.

The chapter's end, after Maya returns from her visit, also emphasizes the importance of words, this time in contrast to the way white people use words. When Maya tells her brother, “By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookie—,” Momma threatens to beat her granddaughter (85). The crime is that since “Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light,” saying “by the way” was, in Momma's view, blasphemous (86). This episode would seem thematically unrelated to the rest of the chapter and only an example of Momma's domestic theocracy were it not for the chapter's final sentence: “When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: “Whitefolks use” by the way” to mean while we're on the subject,' Momma reminded us that ‘whitefolks' mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ’” (86–87). While the “by the way” episode concludes the chapter, Black Boy fashion, with an example of the awful power of words, this final sentence concludes both the episode and chapter just as the emphasis on cleanliness concluded the “powhitetrash” chapter: through their greater attention to details, the Henderson/Johnson clan shows itself to be superior to whites, and instead of showing Momma to be abusive and tyrannic, the “by the way” episode anticipates the affirmation later in the book of the strength blacks find in the careful—even poetic—use of words, just as Mrs. Flowers does in her reading and in her speech about words.

The internal organization of chapters, as in the “powhitetrash” and Mrs. Flowers chapters, into thematic units that would make Cleanth Brooks proud is but one of the effects Angelou uses in Caged Bird. Equally effective is the way Angelou juxtaposes chapters. For example, she follows the Mrs. Flowers chapter, with its lessons on the power of words and on identity, with the chapter (the sixteenth) where Maya breaks Mrs. Cullinan's dishes because the white employer neglects to take a single but important word—Maya's name—and Maya's identity seriously. This chapter comments, then, on the previous one by showing Maya acting on the basis of what she has learned in the previous chapter about the importance of words and about affirming identity. Maya's smashing of the dishes is also an important stage in the progression of strategies for responding to racial oppression from helpless indignation, to subtle resistance, to active protest. No longer helplessly angered and humiliated, as she was by the former sheriff and the white girls taunting her grandmother, Maya shows in the Mrs. Cullinan chapter that she has internalized the lesson of the “powhitetrash” episode and can figure out, with her brother's advice, a way to resist her white employer's demeaning of her that is subtle and yet allows her to feel herself the victor of an unspoken confrontation. After Mrs., Cullinan insists on calling her Mary instead of Margaret (which best approximates her real name, Marguerite), Maya realizes that she can neither correct her employer nor simply quit the job. Like her grandmother with the rude white girls, Maya cannot openly confront her oppressor, nor can she allow the situation to continue. Instead she breaks Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dishes and walks out, exulting as Mrs. Cullinan tells her guests, Her name's Margaret, goddamn it, her name's Margaret!” (93).13

Angelou follows this chapter with a series of three chapters, the seventeenth through the nineteenth, each of which depicts subtle black resistance to white oppression. However, while the sixteenth chapter ends with Maya exulting at the efficacy of her resistance of Mrs. Cullinan, these chapters increasingly express the limitations of subtle resistance. The seventeenth chapter tells of Maya's and Bailey's viewing movies starring Kay Francis, who resembles their mother, and describes how Maya turns the stereotypical depiction of black people in Hollywood movies back onto the unknowing white members of the audience. As the whites snicker at the Stepin Fetchitlike black chauffeur in one Kay Francis comedy, Maya turns the joke on them:

I laughed too, but not at the hateful jokes. … I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a big mansion with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother. And it was funny to think of the whitefolks' not knowing that the woman they were adoring could be my mother's twin, except that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier.

(99–100)

This passage works very much like Momma's victory over the white trash girls: the whites' taunts are turned back on them, though the whites may not know it. Nonetheless, this permits the black person to feel superior instead of humiliated while avoiding the kind of open confrontation that could lead to violence. What is problematic about the seventeenth chapter is that, as in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, the end of the chapter casts a shadow on the success achieved in the moment of subtle resistance by describing Bailey's very different reaction to the movie: it makes him sullen, and on their way home, he terrifies Maya by running in front of an oncoming train (100).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, which tell of the revival meeting and the Joe Louis fight, a black community is able to feel superior to whites. Both chapters, though, end ambiguously, with a reminder that the feeling of superiority is transitory and fragile. At the revival, the congregation thrills to a sermon that subtly accuses whites of lacking charity while reminding the congregation of the ultimate reward for their true charity. The congregation leaves the revival feeling, “It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell” (110–11). Again, the oppressed are able to feel superior without risking the violence of an open confrontation. The final two paragraphs of the chapter, however, compare the gospel music at the revival with the “ragged sound” of the “barrelhouse blues” coming from the honky-tonk run by “Miss Grace, the good-time woman” (111). Like the parishioners at the revival, the customers of the suitably named Miss Grace “had forsaken their own distress for a little while.” However,

Reality began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning. After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver's seat. How long, merciful Father? How long? … All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?

(111)

Whereas the “powhitetrash” and Mrs. Cullinan chapters ended on a note of victory, this chapter ends on one that rings more of defeat. This is because the book moves through the three strategies for responding to white racist oppression—helpless indignation, subtle resistance, and active protest—and at this point is preparing the transition from the limited victories of subtle resistance to the outright victory of active protest.

The next chapter, the nineteenth, which describes the community at the store listening to a Joe Louis match, follows the same pattern as the revival chapter. Louis's victory provides his fans a stirring moment of racial pride and exaltation: “Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother's son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas” (114). But while Louis's victory allows his black fans to feel themselves stronger and superior to their white oppressors, there are limits to how far the black community can rejoice in its superiority. The chapter ends by mentioning that those who lived far out of town spent the night with friends in town because, “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 that we were the strongest people in the world” (115).

Because chapters eighteen and nineteen explore the limits to subtle, but passive, resistance, the book has to go on to present other possible ways of responding to white oppression. The climactic response, one that consists of active resistance and outright protest, is Maya's persisting and breaking the color line of the San Francisco street-car company, described in the thirty-fourth chapter. Since Caged Bird was written in the late sixties, at the height of the black power movement, and at a time that was still debating the value of Martin Luther King's belief in non-violent protest, it is no surprise that this act of protest is the climactic moment of resistance to white oppression in the book, a moment that says: Momma's type of resistance was fine in its time and place, but now it is time for some real action.14 There are at least three other episodes in the second half of Caged Bird, however, which explore the line between subtle but passive resistance and active, open protest: the graduation scene (chapter twenty-three), the dentist scene (chapter twenty-four), and the story Daddy Clidell's friend, Red Leg, tells of double-crossing a white con man (chapter twenty-nine).

Falling as they do between the Joe Louis chapter and the San Francisco street-car company chapter, these three episodes chart the transition from subtle resistance to active protest. The graduation scene for the most part follows the early, entirely positive examples of subtle resistance in Caged Bird. The only difference is that the resistance is no longer so subtle and that it specifically takes the form of poetry, which in itself valorizes the African-American literary tradition as a source for resisting white racist oppression. Otherwise, the graduation chapter conforms to the pattern established by the “powhitetrash” and Mrs. Cullinan chapters: first, there is the insult by the white person, when the speaker tells the black audience of all the improvements which the white school will receive-improvements that far surpass the few scheduled for the black school (151). There is Maya's first response of humiliation and anger: “Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds” (152), shared now by the community: “[T]he proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads” (152). Then there is the action on the part of a member of the black community—Henry Reed's improvised leading the audience in “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing” (155)—that at the same time avoids an irreversible confrontation with the white oppressor and permits the black community to feel its dignity and superiority: “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived” (156).

The primary difference in the graduation chapter is that because the audience sings together, the resistance is a community action. The resistance is still not exactly an outright protest and it still avoids open confrontation, since the white insulter has left and does not hear the singing. Otherwise, the scene resembles a civil rights protest two decades later. The graduation also serves as an introduction for the dentist chapter, which is similar to the graduation chapter because of the way it highlights literature as a possible source for resisting racist oppression, and which is the crucial transitional chapter from subtle resistance to active protest because it opens the door to the eventuality of open confrontation by presenting the closest instance in the book of a black person in Stamps openly confronting a racist white.

The insult in the dentist chapter occurs when Stamps's white and only dentist—to whom Maya's grandmother had lent money, interest-free and as a favor—refuses to treat Maya's excruciating toothache, telling Maya and Momma, “[M]y policy is I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's” (160). From this point on, though, the chapter ceases to follow the pattern of the previous examples of resistance. Instead, Momma leaves Maya in the alley behind the dentist's office, and in a passage printed in italics, enters the office transformed into a superwoman, and threatens to run the now-trembling dentist out of town. Readers quickly perceive that this passage is italicized because it is Maya's fantasy, but they do have to read a few sentences of the fantasy before realizing it. The chapter ends, after Maya and Momma travel to the black dentist in Texarkana, with Angelou's explanation of what really happened inside the white dentist's office—Momma collected interest on her loan to the dentist, which pays the bus fare to Texarkana—and Angelou's remark: “I preferred, much preferred, my version” (164).

The fantasy scene bears attention because it is the only one like it in Caged Bird. It is the only italicized passage in the book and the only one that confuses the reader—even if only for a moment—over what is real and what is fantasy. Some critics have argued that this passage serves the purpose of underlining how limited Momma's ability to fight racism is,15 and it is true that in a better world, Momma would have been able to exact proper and courteous care from a dentist who was beholden to her. This reading, however, does not account for either the uniqueness of the presentation of the passage or the very real pride Maya feels for her grandmother as they ride the bus between Stamps and Texarkana: “I was so proud of being her granddaughter and sure that some of her magic must have come down to me” (162–163). On the one hand, the italicized passage does highlight the contrast between what Maya wishes her grandmother could do to a racist with what little she can do, thus again demonstrating the limitations of subtle resistance as an overall strategy for responding to racist oppression. On the other hand, the fantasy passage anticipates the kind of outright confrontations between oppressed black and racist oppressor that occurred when Maya broke the street-car company's color line and in the civil rights movement. Although it is only a fantasy, it is the first instance in Caged Bird of a black person openly confronting a racist white, and thus is the first hint that such confrontation is a possibility,

The fact that the fantasy passage is an act of imagination is also significant, since it hints that imagination and storytelling can be forms of resisting racism. It is natural to read the fantasy passage in this way because of its placement immediately after the apostrophe to Black known and unknown poets” at the end of the graduation chapter (156). Because of this passage praising black poets, we are all the more inclined to see the imagined, italicized, fantasy passage five pages later as itself an instance of poetry. For one, the apostrophe includes in the category of “poets” anyone who uses the power of the word—“include preachers, musicians and blues singers” Thus, anyone who uses language to describe pain and suffering and their causes (i. e., blues singers) belongs in the category of poets. According to this definition, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a blues singer, and therefore a poet, too, since telling why the caged bird sings is an instance of describing pain and suffering and their causes, an instance of the blues. Loosely defined, poetry is also an act of imagination, and thus the italicized fantasy passage in the dentist chapter is poetic, since it is an act of imagination. in fact, it is the first instance of Maya being a poet, and thus the first step towards the far more monumental act of writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings itself. Poetry, in all its forms, can be an act of resistance. The graduation chapter has already made that clear, but the dentist chapter makes it clear that the victim of racial oppression can herself become a poet and use her poetry as a form of resistance. Maya had begun to learn the positive power of poetry and of words in the Mrs. Flowers chapter. Now she begins the process of harnessing the power of words to positive effect, a process that concludes with the composition almost thirty years later of the very book in hand.

The final instance of not-quite-outright resistance is the scam Red Leg tells kin of pulling on a white con man. This episode is not the open, active protest of Maya's integration of the street-cars, since it does not involve a direct confrontation with the white racist, but it is closer to it than any of the previous examples of resistance because the white person ends up knowing that he has been had at his own game. The inclusion of the episode is at first glance irrelevant to the heroine's personal development, but Angelou's comments at the end of the chapter make clear how the passage fits with the rest of the book. For one, Angelou remarks that, “It wasn't possible for me to regard Fred Leg and his accomplice] as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements” (190). The reason for her pride is that these black con artists are achieving revenge for wrongs incurred against the entire race: “‘We are the victims of the world's most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It's all right if we do a little robbing now,” (190–91). The scam is, therefore, another example of fighting back against white domination and racist oppression, an example that, like the others, meets with the author's approval.

The scam artist chapter ends, like so many other chapters, with a paragraph that appears to have little to do with what precedes. It tells of how Maya and her black schoolmates learned to use Standard English and dialect in their appropriate settings. This short paragraph certainly belongs to the commentary running throughout the book on appreciating the significance and power of words: “We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial” (191). It also serves to emphasize the superior ability of blacks to adapt to and get the best of circumstances and situations: “My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. in the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s's from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs” (191). Angelou shows here the superior adaptability of her black schoolmates (and that Maya has come a long way from her scorn of her grandmother's use of dialect): the blacks learn all the whites do and more. This lesson is entirely appropriate to the con artist chapter, since what the stories about pulling scams demonstrate is the black version of heroism, which is to make the most of what little one has—in other words, adaptability: [I]n the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast” (190).

Within strictly legal confines, such an ability is the essence of the American myth of success, and undoubtedly, at least part of the appeal of Caged Bird is that it corresponds both to this definition of black heroism and to the outline of a typical success story.16 The product of a broken family, raped at age eight, Angelou was offered at first “only the crumbs” from her “country's table.” She suffers from an inferiority complex, an identity crisis, and the humiliation of racist insults. By the end of the book, however, she no longer feels inferior, knows who she is, and knows that she can respond to racism in ways that preserve her dignity and her life, liberty, and property, and she knows—and demonstrates in addition through the very existence of the book itself—that she can respond by using the power of words. It may be impossible to convince a poststructuralist that there is something uniquely literary about Angelou's autobiography, but certainly part of what this autobiography is about is the power and utility of literature and its own genesis and existence as a protest against racism. One serves Angelou and Caged Bird better by emphasizing how form and political content work together. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says in respect to the general tradition of autobiographies by African-American women:

The theoretical challenge lies in bringing sophisticated skills to the service of a politically informed reading of texts. To read well, to read fully, is inescapably to read politically, but to foreground the politics, as if these could somehow be distinguished from the reading itself, is to render the reading suspect.

(67)

To neglect many of the formal ways Caged Bird expresses its points about identity, words, and race is to ignore the extent to which Angelou successfully met Loomis's challenge, an important aspect of her artistic accomplishment, and the potential utility of this text in literary classrooms, especially those that emphasize combining formal and ideologically-based approaches to analyzing literature.

Notes

  1. Angelou tells the story of how she came to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in several interviews collected by Jeffrey M. Elliot (80, 151–52, 211). She admits having an inability to “resist a challenge” (“Westways” 80) in her 1983 interview with Claudia Tate (“Maya Angelou” 151–52), and in at least two interviews, she discusses James Baldwin's possible role in helping Loomis use her attraction to a challenge as a ploy to get her to agree to write an autobiography (“Westways” 80, “Maya Angelou,” with Tate 151).

  2. A search in the MLA computerized data bank reveals forty-four items on Angelou, with the oldest dating back to 1973, three years after the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Twenty-eight of these forty-four items have appeared since 1985, and only nine appeared before 1980 (and of these, two are interviews, one is bibliographic information, and one is a portion of a dissertation). There are different possibilities for interpreting these facts: on the one hand, it may be that scholarly critics have been slow to catch up, to Angelou, slow to treat her work—and thus to recognize it—as literature worthy of their attention; on the other hand, it may be that the scholarly status of Angelou's work has risen in concert with poststructuralism's rise and has done so because poststructuralism has made it possible to appreciate Angelou's work in new ways.

  3. For the significance of identity in Caged Bird, see Butterfield (203), Schmidt (25–27), McPherson (16, 18, 121), and Arensberg (275, 278–80, 288–90). On displacement, see Neubauer (117–19, 126–27) and Bloom (296–97). For a consideration of the personal vs. the universal, see McPherson (45–46), Cudjoe (10), O'Neale (26), McMurry (109), and Kinnamon, who stresses the importance of community in Caged Bird (123–33). On the “powhitetrash” scene, see Butterfield (210–12), McPherson (31–33), and McMurry (108). For an extensive consideration of the rape, see Froula (634–36). For the effect of the rape on Maya and her relationship with Mrs. Flowers, see Lionnet (147–52). For the graduation, see Butterfield (207), McMurry (109–10), Arensberg (283), and Cudjoe (14). For the visit to the dentist, see Braxton (302–04) and Neubauer (118–19). For the month in the junkyard, see Gilbert (41) and Lionnet (156–57).

  4. See Angelou's interviews with Tate (“Maya Angelou” 152) and with Neubauer (“Interview” 288–89). In an interview included in McPherson's Order Out of Chaos, Angelou mentions a number of incidents she omitted—some consciously, some unconsciously—from Caged Bird (138–40, 145–47, 157–58). O'Neale, who writes that Angelou's “narrative was held together by controlled techniques of artistic fiction” (26) and that her books are “arranged in loosely structured plot sequences which are skillfully controlled” (32), does not discuss these techniques or arrangements in any detail.

  5. Angelou creates enough potential confusion about her protagonist's identity by having her called different names by different people—Ritie, Maya, Marguerite, Margaret, Mary, Sister. For the sake of consistency, I use the name “Maya” to refer to the protagonist of Caged Bird and the name “Angelou” to refer to its author.

  6. Michaels's book is published in Stephen Greenblatt's series, “The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics,” and Tompkins' book, whose subtitle is The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860, emphasizes reading literature in its historical context. Tompkins' chapter, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” and Michaels' chapter on McTeague strike me as brilliant close literary analysis.

  7. Schmidt (25) and McPherson (26) comment on the episodic quality of Caged Bird. Schmidt is the one commentator on Caged Bird to mention that “each reminiscence forms a unit” (25). An indication of how episodic Caged Bird is is how readily selections from it have lent themselves to being anthologized.

  8. McMurry argues insightfully that Maya “is using the design [she rakes in the front yard] 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 the true emotions” (108). Kinnamon, arguing that “Angelou's purpose is to portray cleanliness as a bonding ritual in black culture” (127), contrasts the importance of washing in the “powhitetrash” chapter with the scene in Black Boy where Richard Wright tells of his grandmother's washing him.

  9. See Bloom, who points to Mrs. Flowers as “a perceptive mother-substitute” (293). Sexual identity is central to the book's last two chapters, in which Angelou tells of Maya's concerns about her sexual identity and the birth of her son. For discussions of these last two chapters, see Smith (373–74), Buss (103–04), Schmidt (26–27), McPherson (53–55), Arensberg (290–91), Butterfield (213), Lionnet (135–36), Demetrakopoulos (198–99), and MacKethan (60).

  10. By being herself, Mrs. Flowers made Maya proud of her racial background, “proud to be Negro,” but the real lesson Maya needs to learn is double: by being herself, Maya herself can be “proud to be Negro” and by being “proud to be Negro,” Maya can be herself. Thus the language of the phrase implies the link between being “proud to be Negro” and being oneself.

  11. See MacKethan, who emphasizes “verbal humor as a survival strategy” in Caged Bird. Cudjoe, arguing that “speech and language became instruments of liberation in Afro-American thought,” reads Caged Bird in the context of this important theme (10–11).

  12. Examples of this abuse occur when Wright tells his grandmother to kiss his ass, when he nonchalantly answers his uncle's question about the time of day, or when a drunken white man bashes him in the face for forgetting to say “sir” (40–44, 149–53, 173–74).

  13. Thanks to my colleague, Mark Richardson, for pointing out that in Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin the sailors rebelled against their officers by smashing dishes and for implying that dish smashing as an act of rebellion may be a literary trope.

  14. Angelou has spoken in at least two interviews of the importance of protest in her work (“Zelo Interviews Maya Angelou, 167; “The Maya Character” 198).

  15. See, for example, Neubauer (118). Mary Jane Lupton also feels that in the dentist episode “the grandmother has been defeated and humiliated, her only reward a mere ten dollars in interest for a loan she had made to the dentist” (261).

  16. On May 29, 1994, twenty-four years after Caged Bird's initial publication, the paperback edition was in its sixty-seventh week on the New York Times Book Review, list of paperback best sellers.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. “An Interview with Maya Angelou.” With Carol E. Neubauer. The Massachusetts Review: A Quarterly of Literature, the Arts, and Public Affairs 28 (1987): 286–92.

———. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1971.

———. “Maya Angelou.” With Claudia Tate. Elliot 146–56.

———. “Maya Angelou.” With Greg Hitt. Elliot 205–13.

———. “The Maya Character.” With Jackie Kay. Elliot 194–200.

———. “Westways Women: Life is for Living.” With Judith Rich. Elliot 77–85.

———. “Zelo Interviews Maya Angelou.” With Russell Harris. Elliot 165–72.

Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.College Language Association Journal 20 (1976): 273–91.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Heritages: Dimensions of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Women's Autobiographies.” The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner. New York: 1980. 291–303.

Braxton, Joanne M. “Ancestral Presence: The Outraged Mother Figure in Contemporary Afra-American Writing.” Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 299–315.

Brooks, Cleanth. “Irony as a Principle of Structure.” 1948; rev. 1951. Literary Opinion in America: Essays Illustrating the Status, Methods, and Problems of Criticism in the United States in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Morton Dauwen Zabel. Rev. ed. New York: Harper, 1951. 729–41.

Buss, Helen M. “Reading for the Doubled Discourse of American Women's Autobiography.” A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 6 (1991): 95–108.

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1974.

Cudjoe, Selwyn R. “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement.” Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Doubleday-Anchor, 1984. 6–24.

Cullen, Countee. “Yet Do I Marvel.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. New York: Bantam, 1971. 100.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “The Metaphysics of Matrilinearism in Women's Autobiography: Studies of Mead's Blackberry Winter, Hellman's Pentimento, Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Kingston's The Woman Warrior.Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 180–205.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “My Statue, My Self: Autobiographical Writings of Afro-American Women.” The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1988. 63–89.

Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11 (1986): 621–44.

Johnson, James Weldon. “O Black and Unknown Bards.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. New York: Bantam, 1971. 42–43.

Kent, George E. “Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition.” Kansas Quarterly 7 (1975): 72–78.

Kinnamon, Keneth. “Call and Response: Intertextuality in Two Autobiographical Works by Richard Wright and Maya Angelou.” Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1986. 121–34.

Lionnet, Francoise. Autobiographical Voices Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (1990): 257–76.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Mother Wit: Humor in Afro-American Women's Autobiography.” Studies in American Humor 4 (1985): 51–61.

McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird.South Atlantic Bulletin 41 (1976): 106–11.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Neubauer, Carol E. “Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition.” Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Ed. Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1990. 114–42.

O'Neale, Sondra. “Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography.” Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Doubleday-Anchor, 1984. 25–36.

Schmidt, Jan Zlotnik. “The Other: A Study of the Persona in Several Contemporary Women's Autobiographies.” The CEA Critic 43:1 (1980): 24–31.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 3–24.

Smith, Sidonie Ann. “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance.” Southern Humanities Review 7 (1973): 365–75.

Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger). Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger); The Outsider. New York: Library of America, 1991.

Lyman B. Hagen (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Hagen, Lyman B. “The Autobiographies.” In Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, pp. 54–73. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Hagen traces the critical reaction to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

The title of Angelou's first long book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), was suggested by Abbey Lincoln Roach. The appropriateness of this borrowed line is most apparent when it is considered in its original presentation. It is taken from a line in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “Sympathy.” Asked by an interviewer why does the caged bird sing, Angelou replied,

I think it was a bit of naivete or braggadoccio … to say I know why the caged bird sings! I was copying a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem so it's all right. I believe that a free bird … floats down, eats the early worm, flies away, and mates. … But the bird that's in a cage stalks up and down, looking constantly out … and he sings about freedom. Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar says,


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,


when his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—


When he beats his bars and he would be free;


It is not a carol of joy or glee,


But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,


But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—


I know why the caged bird sings!1

The book's title cleverly attracts readers while subtly reminding of the possibility of losing control or being denied freedom. Slaves and caged birds chirp their spirituals and flail against their constrictions.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was an immediate commercial and critical success. Hailed as a “contemporary classic,” it belongs in the “development genre,”—work in the tradition of Bildungsroman—a subcategory of literature that focuses on growth and psychological development of the central figure. Transformation is the work's dominating theme, a metamorphosis of one who went from “being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware.”2 Throughout her writings, Angelou leaves a trail of overcoming parental and societal betrayal without espousing judgmental condemnations. Her maturation is shown by her responses to life's challenging situations.

According to Ernece B. Kelley, Caged Bird is a “poetic counterpart of the more scholarly Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South by Charles S. Johnson.3 Kelley calls Caged Bird an autobiographical novel rather than an autobiography for good reason: it reads like a novel. It has characters, plot, suspense, and denouement, although the form is episodic. Kelley believes, “On balance, Caged Bird is a gentle indictment of white American womanhood.”4 But Kelley's interpretation is too narrow. The stories, anecdotes, and jokes in Caged Bird do tell a dismaying story of white dominance, but Caged Bird in fact indicts nearly all of white society: American men, sheriffs, white con artists, white politicians, “crackers,” uppity white women, white-trash children, all are targets. Their collective actions precipitate an outpouring of resentment from the African-American perspective. This suggests a thesis for examining Caged Bird through the lens of folklore and humor. It identifies the far broader picture of black America than its depicted focus.

Reviews of Caged Bird praise its use of words. E. M. Guiney wrote that “Angelou is a skillful writer, her language ranges from beautifully lyrical prose to earthy metaphor, and her descriptions have power and sensitivity. This is one of the best autobiographies of its kind that I have read.”5 And R. A. Gross writes that “Her autobiography regularly throws out rich, dazzling images which delight and surprise with their simplicity.”6 Angelou's style demonstrates an obvious ease with vibrant language deployed for the most dramatic impact. A strong sense of the theatrical enriches the most pedestrian passages.

As of the mid 1980s, Caged Bird had gone through twenty hardback printings and thirty-two printings in paperback. Angelou's appearance at the 1993 Presidential Inauguration sent the book back to the top of the New York Times best seller lists and resulted in another round of printings. In fact, Caged Bird has never been out of print since first issued, nor it seems have any of her other books. That Caged Bird was once a selection of the Book of the Month Club, the Ebony Book Club, and also nominated for the National Book Award testifies to its appeal and broad popularity. Caged Bird alone would assure Angelou a place amongst America's most popular authors.

Angelou told Claudia Tate in an interview in 1983 that the occasion leading to the writing of Caged Bird was a dinner party in the late 1960s of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin (a much admired friend), and Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy, at Feiffer's New York apartment.7 After a night of swapping anecdotes, someone suggested that Angelou had the material for a book from her experiences while growing up in Arkansas, Missouri, and California. The next day Judy Feiffer called an editor at Random House—Robert Loomis—to ask if he knew the poet Maya Angelou, who might be able to write an interesting book. Loomis called Angelou who demurred; she was tied up with a television project (“Black, Blues, Black”). Loomis called a few more times. When Angelou remained reluctant, Loomis conceded that perhaps it was just as well she did not attempt a book since autobiography was a most difficult form to handle, and it probably would be impossible to write one with any literary significance. This is a ploy that Angelou cannot resist, she has said. If someone suggests that she can't do something, she considers it a challenge and immediately accepts the proposal. She responded as expected to the reverse psychology and promised Loomis she would prepare a manuscript. Angelou wound up in London, closeting herself to work on the project. Nearly two years later, at a breakfast table, she confronted her good friend Jessica Mitford with a completed text. The two women spent the day poring over the manuscript, which Mitford found fascinating. Caged Bird was the resultant book. Over the years, Angelou has maintained a good working relationship with Robert Loomis, and he continued to serve as editor for all her Random House books. Loomis has made very few public comments on Angelou, as befits a professional editor, but in one instance did show an admiration for her craftsmanship by noting that she could completely reverse material, put the ending as the beginning, with no trouble whatsovever.

Memory plus distance equals true autobiography, the cliche reads. Benvenuto Cellini recommended that “all men of every sort should set forth their lives with their own hand; … But they should not commence so noble an undertaking before they have reached the age of forty years.”8 Since Angelou was almost forty when she undertook writing Caged Bird, she conforms to Cellini's caveat. According to Marcel Proust, memory can be a powerful weapon against mortality; for Angelou it is also a powerful weapon against bigotry.

With a mind filled with memories, Angelou recaptures her youth. She demonstrates an impressive recall of what it is like to be a child while diligently striving to maintain perspective. Some critics have questioned the point of view as being overly influenced by adult perception. Angelou has publicly addressed this difficulty and feels confident about her presentation. She structures her story into three parts: arrival, sojourn, and departure, geographically and psychologically. The narrative opens with a flashback to an Easter Sunday church scene in the early 1930s, shortly after her arrival from California. This scene constitutes a three-page prologue which establishes the insecurity and lack of status felt by the child Marguerite. She initially recreates the embarrassment she feels at her inability to remember the four-line poem she recites before the congregation, a situation often experienced by youngsters in like circumstances. As R. A. Gross says, Angelou “opens her autobiography and conveys the diminished sense of herself that pervaded much of her childhood.”9 Angelou recalls preparing for church and struggling with her troublesome body image. She is dressed in a discarded “ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway” (CB 2), which to her childish perception symbolizes her unacceptable being. She daydreams of having “real” hair and blue eyes, which, in her young mind, denote affluence and acceptability. A tone of “displaced” frustration pervades this introductory section, and the reader is immediately won over and becomes a sympathetic confidante. This beginning initiates the journey to establish a worthwhile self concept.

Following the church incident, Angelou begins the narrative proper and proceeds chronologically from her sojourn at Stamps to her introduction to San Francisco. The book ends with the birth of her son, symbolic of the end of childhood. However, this closing door opens a new status for the important women of Caged Bird: Angelou moves to the level of a mother; Vivian to that of grandmother; and Momma, while losing none of her wisdom, is less effective upon current life. A certain increase in worthiness accompanies motherhood and is an affirmation of Maya's value as a person. Angelou fleshes out the narrative of her very young days with stories that depict the humiliation and struggles resulting from the racism then practiced. Angelou recounts how difficult it was for hard-working African Americans to survive in an economically depressed and racially oppressed area. She intentionally incorporates incidents that show her community, in spite of its marginal existence, had moments of fun and laughter, and a significance as an entity.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou acknowledges that many strong memories of her childhood were of unpleasant happenings. However, she knows what a good solid sense of humor can contribute to the success of stories, and relies on her humor to soften her recollections. Making the difficult palatable allows for the incorporation of subtle judgments on the inequities of black, communal life. Thus while the comedy in Caged Bird and in her other writings is often dark humor emerging from hurt, it is woven into her narratives to do more than lighten them. Angelou's mother, Vivian, on a car ride to San Francisco, “strung humorous stories along the road like a bright wash and tried to captivate us” (CB 172). This bridging with humor by Vivian attempts to close the gap caused by her rather haphazard record of mothering. The many jokes, stories, anecdotes, and amusing incidents in Angelou's writings testify to a native humor and its bonding effect. Outsiders feel like insiders when they chuckle and smile together.

In a rather long and very impressive article, Elizabeth Schultz examines the classification of many African-American autobiographies. She particularly looks at the blues mode featured in these writings. Maya Angelou's Caged Bird is naturally included by Schultz as a blues genre autobiography, as discussed in a previous chapter. Schultz does state that “Black autobiography has a testimonial as well as a blues mode.”10 Thus there is a blending of two differing approaches to autobiography by most black writers, particularly of more recent times, according to Schultz. The single, individual voice is seen to expand and reflect a communal tone to impact upon the reader. Testimonial autobiographies often shift chronology, as Angelou does with her church-scene opening of Caged Bird, to affect later experiences. The mixture of blues and testimonial offers a counterpoint presentation of personal convictions and confrontations balanced against the innate wit and grace essential to survival. The dependence upon a black generated folklore and humor has already been explored. Schultz goes on to note that blues autobiographers are involved in a process of self-discovery.11 They are too involved with life events and responses for reflection, but their readers are drawn into this relationship.12 Angelou is perceived as writing from a “perch of time,” allowing her a perspective of maturity.13 The vision of the black autobiographer, particularly in the blues mode, is shaped by the writer's experience in his community and a discovery of a personal consciousness, according to Schultz.14 This approach depends upon a level of maturity for assessing the good and the bad and expressing the hope that the good will prevail.

Angelou's style in Caged Bird reflects the inflections and rhythms and natural metaphors of the blues which creates a sense of community with her readers, but she also incorporates prose identifiable with African-American sermoninizing. This, too, signifies to her particular audience.15 An essential blues characteristic of ironic understatement serves as a vehicle for enduring the contradictions of life. Yet, conscious overstatement of episodic details allows a focus upon the extreme emotional responses.16 Angelou permits herself flights of fantasy and exaggeration to express an intensity of feeling.17 This is particularly pertinent to Caged Bird where a major goal is self-determination.

Caged Bird chronicles approximately ten years that Angelou and her brother Bailey, Jr. live with their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, who owns the store in the segregated section of Stamps, Arkansas. Marguerite and Bailey, Jr. had been tagged and shipped by their parents by rail from California to Arkansas to live with Momma. Mrs. Henderson's world “was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion, and ‘her place’” (CB 47). “Momma” Henderson and her views on life provide what little stability Maya experiences.

In 1935, “without warning,” father Bailey Johnson, Sr. swoops into town from California, and Marguerite and Bailey, Jr. are again uprooted and taken to live with their mother in St. Louis. Here Angelou meets the maternal side of her family and finds these relatives to be an extremely close-knit group: “Grandfather had a famous saying that caused great pride in his family: “Bah, Jesus, I live for my wife, my children and my dog” (CB 50). Angelou actively advocates family strength and cohesion as often as possible. Her maternal grandmother, a quadroon or an octoroon, raised in a German setting, is an active force in local politics. Grandfather Baxter was a dark West Indian native in stark contrast to his wife's nearly white visage. Each had the distinctive dialect of their backgrounds. However, the grandmother's German upbringing and light appearance made her more acceptable to the local power structure and assured her a position of significance.

But the urban high-life differs diametrically from the fundamentalist structure of rural Stamps. In St. Louis, Marguerite is raped by her mother's current paramour while she is under his care. The detailed recall of the rape itself and the searing memory of it inform the reader of the tremendous impact both mental and physical upon the innocent victim. On the courtroom stand at the trial of the accused, a Mr. Freeman, Angelou hides previous advances made by him—some innocent and some not-so-innocent—still fearful of his threats. As a result, he is given a reduced sentence. The rape of a black child is apparently not of great concern to the judicial system of that time and place. The lifetime impact upon the small victim apparently does not warrant serious punishment. But his immediate release proves to be his undoing. Street justice is exercised with no ensuing legal recourse. He is found dead, possibly kicked to death by Angelou's “mean and ugly” uncles, righting a family wrong and asserting its status. The eight-year old child associates his death with her lack of truthfulness and therefore blames herself. She takes upon herself the guilt for the lawless act of retribution. Speech causes tragedy, she concludes simplistically, so to avoid further harm to anyone, Marguerite decides to stop talking except to her trusted brother, Bailey. Her mother mistakes this retreat into silence for impudence, however, and ships the two children back to Stamps and the strict discipline and uncomplicated protection of Grandmother Henderson.

Shortly thereafter, in the General Store Marguerite meets Mrs. Flowers, her community's anointed intellectual, who becomes Angelou's “first life line” (CB 77). Momma solicits her aid with the mute Maya, and at her sanctuary-like home Mrs. Flowers gently and graciously draws out Marguerite and encourages her to continue an interest in literature. Mrs. Flowers extols the value of poetry: “Poetry is music written for the human voice. Until you read it (aloud), you will never love it.”18 Through this device, reciting poetry aloud to herself, Angelou regains her use of speech. A love of literature and literacy deepens at this time and continues throughout her life. According to Francoise Lionnet-McCumber, Angelou makes reference to over 100 different literary characters in her autobiographies,19 attesting to her familiarity with conventional literature. Angelou's devotion to learning—to literacy—addresses what Robert B. Stepto says is “the central myth of black culture in America: ‘the quest for freedom and literacy.’”20 African Americans hungered for these goals and strove mightily in many subtle ways to attain them.

The pursuit of knowledge in Angelou's early development, according to George E. Kent, draws on “two areas of black life: the religious and the blues traditions.” Her grandmother represents the religious influence: Black Fundamentalism, the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. Her mother, on the other hand, stands for the “blues-street tradition,” the fast life.21 Francoise Lionnet-McCumber in her dissertation adds a third term to this comparison: “the literary tradition, all the fictional works that the narrator reads avidly.”22Caged Bird draws heavily upon these elements: the hundred references noted above, a couple of dozen biblical quotes, and the music felt throughout.

Following Angelou's re-awakening and emergence under the guidance of her mentor, Mrs. Flowers, Caged Bird's narrative moves forward, incorporating stories that show what it is to be black in the American South. Angelou's rural family associations are typical of the time and place. She tells of an ecumenical church revival meeting that reflects the religious cooperation and involvement of the entire community. Familiar evening entertainments often revolved around ghost stories which were told to both skeptical and supportive superstitious listeners. The folkloric derivations of these activities have been previously addressed in detail. Other reports of daily activities reflect life for African Americans in Stamps, Arkansas and the hundreds of other Stamps.

In 1940, Angelou is graduated with honors from Lafayette County Training School. She recalls with considerable dismay that the commencement speaker—a white politician—promises academic improvements for white schools and the continuation of athletic programs for blacks: “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren't even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises” (CB 151). A graduation scene appears in many autobiographies as signifying survival and achievement. Angelou finds her graduation experience once again points to how opportunity for African Americans is limited and stereotyped by the white patriarchal society. However, the singing of the Negro national anthem, James Weldon Johnson's “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” expresses a unity and portends hope for the future.

Soon thereafter, an increasingly venturesome teenage Bailey, Jr. encounters his first slain black man. Momma Henderson decides it would be safer and timely for the children to be with their parents in California. So Marguerite departs for California with Momma, Bailey to follow. Maya, Bailey, and Momma live together briefly in Los Angeles. Vivian takes the children to Oakland, and Momma returns to Stamps. Vivian remarries and the family resettles in San Francisco. Angelou attends George Washington High School days and studies dance at the California Labor School at night. Maya goes to spend some time with her father and his lady in southern California. She accompanies Bailey, Sr. on a wild jaunt to a Mexican village where he seems to be known. When he becomes too drunk to drive back home, Marguerite takes the wheel, even though she had no driving instruction. She somewhat successfully maneuvers the two of them to the border, where Bailey, Sr. revives and can again take over. This incident furthers her growing awareness that she can indeed do anything she sets her mind to, as Mother Vivian regularly extols.

After a run-in with her father's mistress, Angelou leaves their home and strikes out on her own. She lives for a time in a junk yard with other homeless adolescents. They—“a collage of Negro, Mexican and White”—become her family. The great importance of this “family,” Liliane K. Arensburg finds is “that these children disprove the racial prejudice—and its concurrent death fantasies—of her earlier experiences.”23 Angelou becomes aware that an African American can survive and bond with like-kind of other races. The unquestioning support of each other in this group allows Angelou to reach beyond her former boundaries and attitudes. One of the group lives in a real home and allows its use by the entire band for periodical, personal hygiene. Rules are practical and accepted by all. They share a common goal of survival. This sharing required for survival was tested by Thor Heyerdahl, the explorer, when he deliberately mixed varied ethnic personalities on one of his expeditions. He found their only differences arose from minor personal traits rather than their ethnicity. They were able to adjust to the common bounds of necessity. A former sequestered juror from a major murder trial when questioned about racial problems in the jury room replied that the only problems arose from irritating personal traits, not race, thus further attesting to the ability of diverse persons to form bonds when faced with a common situation.

Angelou eventually returns to San Francisco to live again with her mother. As a maturing teenager, she begins to awaken sexually. Uncertain about her sexuality and fearful of being unwomanly, she turns to her mother, who tries to reassure her. But her lack of development and new, unfamiliar emotional responses leave her still curious and ambivalent. So Angelou challenges her womanhood forthrightly by instigating a casual sexual encounter. She becomes pregnant, keeps her situation hidden from all for over eight months, and just as she graduates from high school announces her condition to her family. School records show her dropping out of school one semester but returning to graduate from Mission High School after a summer session. Very shortly thereafter she gives birth to her son, Clyde (Guy).

The characters on the pages of Caged Bird are fully developed and three-dimensional. The only perceivable distortion might be that literary license seems to embellish them somewhat to larger-than-life personalities. However, they are real-life flesh and blood people who were a part of the life of Maya Angelou. Angelou, the principal personage of Caged Bird, assumes two personae: the voice of “Ritie” (a diminutive of Angelou's first name, Marguerite) who describes poignantly the incidents in her childhood and adolescence; and the voice of Maya, the near adult who is somewhat introspective, more objective and less personal. Angelou uses the second voice to make general observations or to editorialize. For example, when Uncle Willie hides from the prowling klansmen, the Maya voice objects to the lack of police protection for African Americans against obviously lawless activities.

In Jungian archetypal terms, Angelou is the anima. The animus—the male part of her make-up—is represented by her brother Bailey. Bailey Johnson, Jr. is a firm, rather free-spirited youngster who because of being male, is able to move about in his segregated world with fewer restrictions than sister Maya. The two children are very close, probably because of their life situations as much as from their shared experiences and interests. They are both highly literate and adaptable. Bailey is protective of Maya, yet each appears to be very independent. Bailey must face greater dangers in the larger white-dominated world and is taught early on of the risks of being an African-American man. He does not allow this to prevent his functioning as a typical bright, energetic boy. He, more than any other character, with his outgoing personality and natural curiosity seems to exemplify Angelou's contention regarding blacks and whites: that they are more alike than un-alike; that there are more similarities than differences. Bailey likes reading, comic books, movies, sportscasts, following around his St. Louis uncles and a little strutting. He idolizes his attractive, devil-may-care mother. All of these things could be said about any boy of his age. However, the promise of Bailey the boy seems to have been blunted for Bailey the man who wound up in prison. This is a sad, unfortunate development, but is no openly attributed to race. His embracing the street-style is accepted as a matter of circumstance and choice.

In addition to Bailey, whom the young Angelou acclaims the greatest person in her world, most male characters in Caged Bird receive exceptionally sympathetic treatment: there are the “dirt-disappointed” field workers, whose efforts weren't enough “no matter how much cotton they had picked” (CB 7); there is Daddy Clidell, a successful businessman; Grandfather Baxter, a family man of stature who had “mean” (tough) but not cruel sons; Uncle Willie, handicapped physically but not mentally; and Mr. McElroy who owned property. He was an “independent Black man, a near anachronism in Stamps” (CB 17). Even Mr. Freeman, the rapist of a child, had worldly status and held an important position with the railroad. In an interview with Claudia Tate Angelou said that she “wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre.” These men all evidence strength and some attainment, even the worst of them. This would appear to be a conscious effort to minimize popular negative images of the African-American male.

Angelou's father, Bailey, Sr., does not fare so well. Here the personal outweighs the general. She confesses that “(her) father had not shown any particular pride in (her) and very little affection” (CB 195). Thus he is a “stranger” to her and someone to whom she did not feel any loyalty. His betrayal of the children was evidenced by his appearance in their lives only at times of moving them around—out of his way and responsibility. Her father lived in a fast lane characteristic of “hipster” types. In Caged Bird and in a later book, Angelou ridicules her father's speech habit of “er-er-ing” and his tendency to posture. Bailey, Sr. has all the earmarks of a blow-hard. He wheels in and out of her early life with a lot of “pizazz,” but little substance. He does not fill a major role, as a father should, but is seen more as a biological acknowledgment. Even he, however, survives and flourishes in his world, despite Angelou's low opinion of him. This lack of regard for Bailey, Sr. did not prevent Angelou from acknowledging the importance of a father figure to a family. Until her son is accepted as a grown man, she searches unsuccessfully for a man who would be a proper father and role model for him. She encounters only more betrayal.

Angelou's treatment of female role models in Caged Bird—of her Mrs. Flowers and of her mother and grandmothers—is even more positive than her treatment of African-American males. Since it is generally accepted that children of her era developed stronger bonds with their mother than their father, it is not surprising to find Angelou emphasizing the importance of mother and grandmothers. Such emphasis on mothers is, according to Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, “typical in women's autobiography due to the innate and archetypal aspects of the women's psyche, celebrated and codified long ago as the Eleusinian Mysteries.”24 These archetypal aspects may be incorporated in women's autobiographies, but it does not seem to be done consciously by Angelou. What she does do consciously, however, is to make an effort to counter unflattering female types described in the earlier literature by James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. In this literature, grandmother matriarchs are depicted as silent, post-forty, corpulent and passively working in the kitchen.25

Compared to these earlier female stereotypes, Angelou's paternal grandmother, Mrs. Henderson, is a symbol of strength; she is in no way a weak, passive personality. She is not silent. She is the moral center and the voice of authority in Caged Bird. She is an Earth Mother, a figure who is good, kind, nurturing, and protecting. Angelou calls her “Momma” and in fiction she would be the “Madonna” figure, one who stands for love and home. Her love for Angelou is unconditional and maternal. This love contrasts markedly with the paternal, in which love is more conditional and is usually earned and given only if one is obedient and attractive. In Angelou's extended family an atmosphere of warmth and love prevails that is not bestowed as a result of obedience or something earned. The strong maternal instinct enveloped all.

Momma Henderson, for all her matriarchal positioning, is a total realist. If she ever failed to do her duty or did not observe her place as a lower class citizen, she knows the white power structure would soon find a way to express its displeasure. Those in control are generally more interested in order than in justice. Momma's firm leadership while still being forced to keep her place, sends a mixed message to the younger generation that required a good deal of maturity and distancing for them to understand. It was some time before Angelou expressed, particularly in her poetry, the courage and patience of those who kept quiet and saw to the survival of those in whom the future rested.

Two other characteristics of Momma contrast with the matriarchs found in early American literature. Inasmuch as there were few or no opportunities in the professions, many women turned to religion as a means of escape from the confinement of their defined roles. Thus, Momma, a natural leader, became an important figure in her church. Moreover, Momma was an entrepreneur, a female rarity in the 1930s and unheard of one hundred years earlier. Her business acumen helped her family survive the depression and keep off relief; she preserved their independence. This would not be a role natural to her predecessors.

In addition to her praise of Momma Henderson, Angelou expresses great pride in her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Baxter, who did not take a back seat to anybody. As previously noted, she was very light-skinned and probably could have easily passed as white. She chose to remain a part of a black community. She and her family spoke standard English and provided important liaison with the local white power structure. She was a political activist who wielded considerable clout in her neighborhood in St. Louis, thus giving the lie to the myth that African Americans could not participate effectively in the political arena. Power blocks delivered votes and reaped the rewards. The Baxters understood the strength of unity.

Similarly, Angelou's mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, emerges as an extremely vital personality. She is Angelou's role model. Angelou absorbs her personal philosophy and frequently quotes her maxims of life. Mrs. Johnson's beauty and zest when she was young “made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest” (CB 174); and “To describe (her) would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow” (CB 49). Vivian is a city woman and sees no need in her world to conform to the subservient country folk tradition. She can sing and swing at will.

Vivian also found it too inconvenient to care for her two children or found it too incompatible with her life style. She finds an excuse—a depressed Maya—to send Maya and Bailey back to Stamps. This cavalier dumping of her children appears to Stephanie Demetrakopoulos as a failure to come to terms with the matriarchate (her mother), and this treatment, Demetrakopoulos finds, is a disturbing weakness of the book. Angelou's mother is seen as “shockingly callous” and insensitive by sending the little girl back to Stamps after being raped. Maya is traumatized by events and full of unwarranted guilt. The mother's behavior here and at other times does not justify the favorable treatment she got from Angelou and this action, Demetrakopoulos says, is “puzzling and unsettling.”26 Vivian is just as guilty as Bailey, Sr. of betraying their children. But Mother Vivian is idolized by both Johnson children and neither would dream of questioning her less-than perfect mothering. She is all that is glamorous and movie-life desirable to them. In Angelou's next book, Gather Together in My Name, she does question her mother's sense of responsibility. She wonders whether her mother “… who had left (her) with others until she was thirteen … (would) feel more responsibility for (her) child Guy (nee Clyde) than she had felt for her own” (GT 3). Thus there existed an awareness of an imperfect relationship with mother as well as father. Even if not openly acknowledged, this would have a dire effect upon sense of worth. Angelou always seems to seek out her mother's wisdom and advice, however, and gives her an important role in her life. She does not seem to dwell upon any rejection or lack of love. Years later Vivian would move in with Maya, who would never abdicate family responsibility without remorse. She, like Momma Henderson, fully understood and accepted motherhood and its attendant Madonna aspects.

In Caged Bird and her other autobiographies, Angelou does discover herself and her capabilities and effectively conveys her personality and opinions. Her real purpose in Caged Bird, however, as well as in her other books, is to illuminate and explain her race's condition by protesting against white misconceptions and legitimatizing the extremes sometimes required for survival. While justifying some questionable activities, she does not judge the right or wrong of them. She wants to destroy those stereotyped images of African Americans that prevailed when she wrote Caged Bird. Angelou rightly resents this thinking that dehumanized her people, and which continued to be practiced despite civil rights progress. Instead of writing an argumentative response or preaching to protest, Angelou chose the traditional form of autobiography to dramatize the conditions, presenting easily understood counter-examples. The reader can relate and conclude that the stereotype image is false and destructive. Forces beyond control dictate actions determined to be anti-social. Given equal opportunities, Angelou believes that like reactions would be demonstrated by blacks and whites. Later she acted this out as the white queen in Genet's The Blacks.

Caged Bird ends with Angelou facing the adult world full of “Mother Wit” and determination. She accepts enthusiastically the challenge of sustaining herself and her son. Her focus is that of a mature, responsible young woman. She will do better than her predecessors and enhance the mantle of motherhood. She has gained strength from her adversities, and increased status as a mother gives her added confidence for the future. The Maya character in Caged Bird addressed the author's stated themes by overcoming many obstacles, establishing some sense of self as a mother, and repeatedly emphasizing the importance of literacy and education. She also serves the traditional black autobiographical themes of bondage, her dependence on others; flight, as she breaks out on her own with the junk yard group; and freedom, by taking control of her life. Thus Angelou includes all required elements in Caged Bird and uses it as the base for her future books.

Notes

  1. Arthur E. Thomas, “Interview with Maya Angelou,” Like It Is. Arthur E. Thomas Interviews Leaders on Black America (New York; Dutton, 1981) 6–7.

  2. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1970) 230. Hereafter cited in the text as CB.

  3. Ernece B. Kelly, Harvard Educational Review Nov. 1970: 681.

  4. Kelly 682.

  5. E. M. Guiney, Library Journal 15 Mar. 1970: 1018.

  6. R. A. Gross, Newsweek 2 Mar. 1970: 90.

  7. Jeffrey M. Elliot, ed., Conversations with Maya Angelou (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi) 151–52.

  8. Quoted in Marilyn B. Smith, “The Time of Their Lives. Teaching Autobiography to Senior Adults,” College English 44, 7 (1982): 692.

  9. Gross 90.

  10. Elizabeth Schultz, “To Be Black and Blue: The Blues Genre in Black American Autobiography,” Kansas Quarterly 7 (1975): 81–96.

  11. Schultz 85.

  12. Schultz 85.

  13. Schultz 86.

  14. Schultz 87.

  15. Schultz 91.

  16. Schultz 92.

  17. Schultz 93.

  18. Kelly 682.

  19. Francoise Lionnet-McCumber, “Autobiographical Tongues. …” Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1986: 74.

  20. Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979) ix.

  21. George E. Kent, “Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition,” Kansas Quarterly 7, 3 (1975): 75.

  22. Lionnet-McCumber 74.

  23. Liliane K. Arensberg, “Death as Metaphor in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,College Language Association Journal, December 1976, 273–91.

  24. Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, “The Metaphysics of Matrilinealism in Women's Autobiography,” Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism ed. Estelle C. Jelinek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 180–205.

  25. Sondra O'Neale, “Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography” Black Women Writers 1950–1980. ed. Mari Evans (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1984).

  26. Demetrakopoulos 183.

Pamela Loos (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Loos, Pamela. “A Life Line.” In Overcoming Adversity: Maya Angelou, pp. 21–31. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

[In the following essay, Loos examines the implications of Marguerite's muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

“I was liked … for just being Marguerite Johnson.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970

“Into this cocoon I crept,” Maya Angelou wrote about withdrawing into muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She felt safer when she was silent, and also just by being back in Stamps. There were no tall buildings, noisy cabs and trucks, or bustling family gatherings. In Stamps, she thought, nothing ever happened, so nothing else could hurt her. And unlike her mother's relatives, people in Stamps accepted her muteness. After all, they supposed, she was only trying to adjust to being back in the South, and she had been so delicate to begin with, others agreed. No one in Stamps knew what had happened to Marguerite in St. Louis except Momma. To help her granddaughter communicate, Momma attached a tablet and pencil to a belt for Marguerite to wear.

Despite Marguerite's silence, she and Bailey received a great deal of attention in the small, poor town. They were the two little travelers who had made it to a big city up North. People would stop by Momma's store, where the children worked after school, just to hear the tales Bailey wove about the elevators, flush toilets, Frigidaires, and skyscrapers of St. Louis. He had a lot to talk about, and since no one in Stamps knew any better, he could embellish his adventures as much as he wanted. Marguerite, however, remained silent. Most people assumed that she was pining for the big-city adventures she'd had.

Fortunately for Marguerite, one woman in Stamps saw her muteness for what it was. Bertha Flowers was Stamps's black aristocrat. “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known,” Maya recalled, “and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be. … It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.”

Although Mrs. Flowers and Momma had frequent talks, they seemed so unalike that Marguerite wondered what they might have in common. One sunny afternoon when Mrs. Flowers stopped by the store, Momma told Marguerite to change into a good dress. She was to carry Mrs. Flowers's groceries home and stop in for a visit. Along the way, Mrs. Flowers spoke gently to Marguerite. She said that she knew Marguerite was doing well in school, but her teachers said it was difficult to get her to speak. She said that although no one could force her to speak, it was important to remember that language was mankind's way of communicating, a gift that separated humans from the lower animals. Mrs. Flowers also said that she knew Marguerite read a lot, but that reading out loud was what truly made words on a page come alive. Intrigued, Marguerite listened silently.

Mrs. Flowers invited Marguerite inside her beautiful home for some lemonade and sweet vanilla cookies that she'd made especially for the young girl. She gave Marguerite some of her books and told her that she should read them aloud at home, trying to make each sentence sound different by changing her voice. She also gave the child a book of poems and asked her to pick one poem and memorize it just for her, so she could recite it the next time she visited.

Marguerite sat entranced as Mrs. Flowers read her the beginning of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. “I heard poetry for the first time in my life,” she later wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Marguerite ran all the way home with the books she had been given and a batch of cookies made especially for Bailey. She was very happy. “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson's grandchild or Bailey's sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson,” she remembers. With more visits and readings and pearls of wisdom from the wonderful special lady, Marguerite at last found her voice and a new self.

In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Maya Angelou compared the trials of giving up muteness to those of overcoming drug addiction. For years after she began speaking again, Bailey and Vivian Baxter traveled to see her when misfortune struck, to make sure she would never sink into muteness again.

The next time Marguerite felt as special as she had with Mrs. Flowers, she was attending her grammar-school graduation from Lafayette County Training School in 1940. Her outstanding academic achievements and attendance record placed her among the first students to receive their diplomas. In fact, all of Stamps's young black population beamed in excitement and anticipation that day. “I had taken to smiling more often, and my jaws hurt from the unaccustomed activity,” she recalled in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Lost tears were pounded to mud and then to dust. Years of withdrawal were brushed aside and left behind.”

But graduation day was momentarily darkened by the address of the guest speaker, a white politician from out of town. The man told the students and their families about all the wondrous new improvements coming not to their school but to Central School—the white school in Stamps. The children going to that school would have new microscopes and chemistry equipment, among other luxuries. Of course, the speaker continued, he had to praise those children in front of him for having graduated a football player who had achieved fame at their Arkansas agricultural college. He also praised the gathered group for graduating some of the state's best basketball players.

In this man's mind, black children did not need to strive for academic greatness and scholarship. Their futures, he seemed to say, were limited to athletics; their dreams should not be the same as those of white children. The stunned audience fidgeted until the busy politician left the stage and hurried off to his next appointment.

But the crowd was heartened when the school's young valedictorian reclaimed the stage and led them all in an uplifting anthem. “While echoes of the song shivered in the air … the tears that slipped down many faces were not wiped away in shame,” Maya recalled in her first autobiography. “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived.”

Survival, for Marguerite and her brother, continued when they were sent once more to live with their mother. Mrs. Henderson realized that as the children grew, they would have a better life away from the racial codes of the South that threatened to squelch their spirits—and that could also pose serious physical danger.

Maya Angelou says that her grandmother made the decision to return them to their mother after a horrifying experience of Bailey's. On his way home from the white section of Stamps, a white man forced the boy and a group of other blacks to retrieve the corpse of a drowned black man from the river and bring it to the local jail. It all seemed like a joke to the grinning man and to the white prisoners at the jail. Once home, Bailey could only ask Momma repeatedly why whites hated blacks so much. That very night, Maya believes, her grandmother began making plans to get the two children out of the South.

This time, Bailey and Marguerite found themselves in California, where their mother was now living. In Oakland, they went to a school that had a basketball court, a football field, and even ping-pong tables under awnings. No one checked up on how hard they were working, and Sundays were spent at the movies instead of at church. Despite the lack of supervision, Marguerite continued to do well in school, and she even began taking evening classes in drama and dance at the California Labor School, where she had earned a scholarship.

One summer, Marguerite traveled to San Diego to spend time with her father and his new girlfriend. But Marguerite could not get along with the young woman, who seemed only slightly older than she was. The young woman had presumed that Bailey's child was a young girl; she was surprised to meet someone of Marguerite's age. Bailey did nothing to ease the conflict, and after the two women ended up in a physical fight, Marguerite decided to set out on her own.

She spent a month sleeping in abandoned cars in a junkyard with some other homeless teens. The group developed a camaraderie that Marguerite had experienced only with her brother. Each of them was required to do some odd job to pitch in for food. Impressed by the “community” she had joined, yet unwilling to believe that this was the best she could do, Marguerite finally called Mother for a plane ticket back to Oakland.

Marguerite moved into the 14-room boarding house where her mother had moved after marrying a successful businessman. The teenager's brief taste of freedom inspired her to abandon high school for a chance at success outside the classroom, and she landed a job as a streetcar conductor for the Market Street Railway Company, the first black to do so, at only 15 years old (she had presented herself as 19).

After a semester, however, Marguerite returned to school. Riddled with confused feelings about growing up, she became pregnant from a single encounter with a popular boy. Her only interest in him was that he had agreed to help her find out what sex was like.

Marguerite managed to keep her pregnancy secret from her mother and her mother's husband until her high school graduation. Surprisingly, her mother was less upset than Marguerite had anticipated. Vivian Baxter had a way of seeing things pragmatically, according to Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was always “hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.”

Still young herself, Marguerite had much to learn about being a good mother. She saw her child as an extension of herself, a possession. “Just as gratefulness was confused in my mind with love, so possession became mixed up with motherhood,” she wrote about the 1945 birth of her son, Clyde (later renamed Guy). “I had a baby. He was beautiful and mine. Totally mine.”

Despite Vivian Baxter's adeptness at handling what life gave her, Marguerite felt that she and Clyde were infringing on Mother's charity, and two months after her son's birth Marguerite moved them out of the boarding house. Her mother found her a trustworthy baby-sitter, and Marguerite found a rented room and got a job as a Creole cook—even though she didn't know what Creole food was. She had simply seen a sign in a restaurant window advertising $75 a week for a Creole cook. Marguerite had managed to talk herself into many a job, and she told the person interviewing her that Creole was really the only style of food she knew how to cook. After she got the job, she promptly headed off to see a relative of Mother's whom she knew to be a good cook. He told her that making Creole food just meant cooking with onions, green peppers, and garlic. Marguerite figured she was prepared.

But after only a few months of being on her own, Maya found herself wallowing in the misery of being a jilted lover. When Bailey advised her to quit whining and do something about her situation, the young mother decided to move on. She headed to San Diego, where she found a new baby-sitter, a new job as a cocktail waitress, and a woman who agreed to tutor her in dance during the day. But her stay in San Diego didn't last long; after a few tumultuous months, she returned to her mother's home once again.

Mother welcomed her as though she had only been on a long vacation. Bailey was also living there while working as a waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Marguerite easily found a job as a short-order cook in a dingy diner, but the job paid very little and left her depressed. She tried to escape her woes through music and books, and then, buoyed by Mother's encouragement that she “had great potential,” she decided to join the Army's Officer Candidate School. There, she believed, she could not only learn a useful trade but also take advantage of the benefits offered to American soldiers by the GI Bill, which would allow her to return to school—and possibly buy a house—after she completed two years of service.

Just short of 19 years old, Marguerite was accepted by the school—and then rejected just one week before her induction. The school where she had taken drama and dance lessons a few years earlier was believed to be a Communist-front organization, and this affiliation was considered unacceptable for someone joining the Army. Maya wrote in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, that her life now had “no center, no purpose,” and she took yet another job as a waitress. At the Chicken Shack restaurant, she began using marijuana in an attempt to ignore what appeared to be a very bleak future.

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