A Theme Of Racism In Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

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Maya Angelou shows the theme of racism in the story “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. “I know why the Caged Birds Sings” is an autobiography written by Maya Angelou in 1968. During the 1960s blacks had to face a lot of controversy in the South. Most states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. Blacks were underclass in everything from voting to education. They would get treated badly by the whites and was not accepted anywhere they go. Maya gained heroes and conquers through the racial intention that she had to face.

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When Maya was three and her brother Bailey was four, their parents had got divorce. In the book Maya deals with “rejection in society and all except deserted by her mother, Vivian Baxter”. Her mother, Vivian set them on a train from California to Stamps, Arkansas where their grandmother, Momma Henderson, stays. She takes both of them and they soon began to call her momma. Momma Henderson own a store which white patronize, owned lands and house and “had more money than the powhitetrash”. She was a strong religious woman that never let anyone tear her down.

Everyone in the neighborhood respected Momma Henderson, except the white children. Maya was disgusted and pitied them for how they treated momma Henderson. When Maya was ten, three little white girls came to the store and momma Henderson sent Maya inside because she didn’t want her to get involved. The little white girls made fun of Momma, but she stood her grounds and song an old hymn. One of the girls did a handstand showing that she didn’t have on no underwear. Maya was shocked how Momma Henderson was just standing there letting them do that to her, but Maya soon came to an understanding that “Momma was actually wining”. “Mrs. Henderson not only provides for her son and two grandchildren, she feeds the black community during the Depression”. Momma Henderson was the mother of the whole community. During the depression, the store she owned did not fail, like the other white’s business. She gained her respect from everyone, including the whites.

“Momma also won the bout with Dentist Lincoln, who had never treated a black patient. She pleaded with him to extract two of Marguerite’s teeth, him that she had once lent him money, but he refused saying that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than a nigger’s”. Through all of that Maya, believes that Momma Henderson will stand her ground and win the battle with Doctor Lincoln just how she did with the three little white girls. Even though Mamma Henderson, was very religious, she soon had to sin just so Maya can see Doctor Lincoln but he still refuses to take care of Maya. No matter how much respect the blacks will give white respect and honor, the whites will never value them the same way.

When Maya was 10 years old, she takes a job in a white lady home name Mrs. Viola Cullinan. She worked along a descendant of slaves, Miss Glory, who was a cook. “Slavery days are long gone, but their trace lingers, shooting up like those uncontrollable weeds that can eat up a garden in the course of a summer”. One day, one of Mrs. Cullinan’s acquaintance upsets Maya when she suggests that Mrs. Cullinan calls her Mary because Margaret is too long, but Margaret is not even her name, its Marguerite. Before the 14 amendments, slaves were giving first and last name, their last name came from their slave owner. “14 amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality or commingling of two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either races”.

Maya became antagonize by the actions of Mrs. Cullinan, but she knows she couldn’t become disrespectful and she couldn’t quick because Momma Henderson would not let her. Maya broke some of Mrs. Cullinan’s heirloom china, making it seem like she did it mistakenly. Mrs. Cullinan goes into rage and becomes racist and calls Maya a racist slur. This racist slur made blacks feel less of a person and decriminalized by the color of their skin. This racial slur is “nigger”.

Black families in Stamps, Arkansas, were excited about the eight-grade graduation; it was the biggest event in the community for black families. Seeing their children go from junior high school to high school was a big step for them especially in that day in time. Black kids could not attend the same schools as white: they were segregated. In 1954 the case of Brown v. Board Education was the spark of ending segregation in public schools. September 4, 1957, the governor arranged for the Arkansas National Guard to not allows black students enroll into Central High School. Nine students were chosen to integrate this school after the case. Soon, President Eisenhower sent in the federal troops to escort them inside the school.

“Angelou’s description of her reaction to Edward Donleavy’s speech at her graduation clearly demonstrates her personal opposition to Donleavy’s belief that African American might only aspire to be athletes, domestics, or manual laborers”. Maya school was originally a school just for whites, but it soon got integrated. Donleavy was a white man and all he talked about is the improvements in the schools in the community. He soon bragged about the many great athletes that graduate from Maya’s school, knowing most them are black. Maya feels that he had intimidated the black children for only saying the achieve in sports instead of academics. The kids felt ashamed and hung their head low, some knew they were more than that, but the words of the speaker made them feel unvalued. Soon after, their valedictorian gave a speech. He made the atmosphere less intense and every child felt proud and they sung an old negro anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”.

Maya brother, Bailey Jr., is the most important person in her life. “The male part of her make-up is represented by her bother Bailey” (Hagen page 59). Maya describe Bailey in the book as a very smart and bright little boy. Bailey and Maya faced racism differently. Bailey tries to forget about the traumatic events. “Bailey must face great dangers in the large white dominated world and is taught early on of the risks of being an African American man”.

Bailey could not completely understand what do black people do to white people that causes whites to have so much hatred towards them. One day, Bailey returns home from an errand, scared and speechless. He just had seen a black man dead body pulled from a pond. A white man seen Bailey and demanded Bailey to help take the man into a wagon and he then act as if he would lock Bailey with the dead body.

Changes began to happen after the U.S. enters World War ll. Many blacks came to city and began working with the whites in defense industries. The blacks soon replace the Japanese, who were entered by the government camps. “The Maya character in Cage Bird addressed the author’s stated themes by overcoming many obstacles, establishing some sense of a mother a repeatedly emphasizing the importance of literacy and education”. Soon enough, segregation has ended but racism will for long continue. Black receives better living and opportunities. Maya becomes a well known author and the success of I know why the Caged Bird Sings starts her off with a great career and she becomes a strong black woman in society.

Works Cited

  • Didion, Joan “Metaphors of a Racial Struggle” Social Issues in Literature: Racism in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings” Ed. Claudia Johnson, Detroit: Greenhaven Press 2008 pages 32-36 Reference
  • Hagen, Lyman “Humor as a Tool for Survival” Social Issues in Literature: Racism in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Ed. Claudia Johnson, Detroit: Greenhaven Press 2008 Pages 57-61 Reference
  • Fox- Genovese, Elizabeth “Fear, Lies, Silence, and Singing” Social Issues in Literature: Racism in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Ed. Claudia Johnson, Detroit: Greenhaven Press 2008 page 37-42
  • Hord, Fred Lee “Race and Education” Social Issues Literature: Racism in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Ed. Claudia Johnson, Detroit: Greenhaven Press 2008 page 43-50
16 December 2021

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