I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Essay Q&A
1. Describe how the narrator perceives herself.
As Maya grows up, she refers to her appearance in negative terms. At the age of 16, she continues to regard herself as plain and unattractive and this is perhaps emblematic of her low self-esteem. Her descriptions of herself as a young girl are similarly negative, as she would rather have the blonde hair and blue eyes of the white child film actresses than her African-American features, thin legs and ‘kinky mass’ of hair. As a child, she appears to have internalized the dominant view of what defines beauty. Interestingly, her criticisms do not extend to other African-Americans; for example, she sees her brother as handsome and her ‘Kingdom Come’ and is defensive of Mother’s attractiveness. It is as though Maya is not comfortable in her own skin, but is able to understand the racist connotations that define prettiness in terms of Aryanism.
Her negative self-perception is countered somewhat, though, by her actions that challenge the stereotypes allotted to her and other African-Americans. Her narrative is littered with pride for her strong grandmother and mother and her decision to be the first African-American employee on the San Francisco streetcars demonstrates a similar determination against adverse conditions.
2. How is Stamps in the 1930s described?
Angelou’s memories of her childhood in Stamps are dominated by her Momma’s influence and the working life of the Store. She remembers these aspects with a nostalgia that is unclouded by sentimentality, though, as she is always quick to register the overwhelming racism that underpins the fear in the community.
She recalls that Stamps is so completely segregated that as a child she used to wonder if white people actually existed. Although she appears to rarely move out of her immediate vicinity, she and her fellow African-Americans are always aware of the dread of racism and the casual deathly violence that hovers over the town.
3. Consider the rape of Maya and her turn to silence after the death of
Maya is sexually abused and later raped by Mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight and this has, of course, an enormous impact on her that is both physical and mental. She is depicted as being so guilt ridden by his murder, after not admitting in court that he had ‘touched’ her before, that she decides to stop speaking rather than risk being to blame for somebody else’s death.
Her logic is entangled in kindness and guilt and the lack of understanding shown to her after the court case is seen to compound these emotions. By retreating into silence she also separates herself from the unbearable reality of the present. It is through the ‘lifeline’ of books, which are re-introduced to Maya by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, that she begins to communicate again. Mrs. Flowers teaches her the beauty in words and perhaps teaches her to remember the joy she is able to take in language.
4. Examine the role of autobiography in giving a voice to marginalized experiences.
Angelou’s series of autobiographies are an account of a life that is far removed from what was the traditional source of autobiographical work: a bourgeois, white male’s thoughts and actions. The life story of an African-American woman has rarely been considered worthy of being reported let alone published in a society that is dominated by a patriarchal and racist ideology. On account of her race and gender, she has been doubly marginalized, but her autobiographies allow for some countering against this hegemony.
Roland Barthes’ essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) questioned the authority of the author when interpreting a text and also puts into doubt the possibility of the author revealing absolute truths. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a reminder that despite the validity of poststructuralist arguments (such as those made by Barthes), the marginalized writer has traditionally been given no authority any way. The autobiography allows for the overlooked experiences to be shifted away from the edges of mainstream thinking to the center.
5. Analyse the way racism is questioned in this work.
Racism is a central theme of this book and Angelou challenges it at every turn. She depicts the madness (and fact) of segregation in the small Southern town that she grew up in and in so doing she challenges the naturalization of supposed white superiority. In addition to this, by looking at racism from a child’s point of view, the narrative points out the illogic yet cruel ways that racism has been allowed to continue.
When Maya relates to the readers, for example, how as a child she wishes she had the blue eyes and blond hair of the white movie stars, she makes the point about how racism seeps into every aspect of her life. Her identity is flawed, according to the dominant, overarching definitions of beauty, and she internalizes this view.
Violence also underpins the ideology of racism and this fear is ever present in Stamps when whites intrude into her life story. The pleasure of walking into the white part of town is always tainted by the dread of confrontation and the knowledge of being disliked for the color of her skin. By examining the effects of racism from her perspective, this abuse of power is shown to be the irrational and controlling crime that it continues to be.