Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles the early years of the author’s life – up to age seventeen. In the book, Angelou poetically describes the phenomenon that is growing up black, in the south, in the time before and during World War II. I believe that you are expected to interpret this as a memoir of overcoming the odds. I believe that you are expected to regard the happenings of this book with feelings of empathy and/or sympathy. You are also supposed to marvel at the way Angelou persevered to become the woman (and writer) she is today.
At the end of the prologue, Angelou states that, “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.” (4)
The razor to the throat is symbolic of authority. To a Southern black girl in the 1930’s and 40’s, authority is almost everyone. Young black female was the absolute bottom of the barrel. She must let herself be ruled by all sorts. Older black kids, black adults, and anyone white. Likewise, these people are ready to pounce on her should she do the least little thing wrong. Everyone was reprimanded for one thing or another as a child. No one enjoyed it. Imagine being surrounded by people, just waiting for you to slip up so that they can yell at you, punish you, etcetera. Through this, Angelou gaines your sypathy, and you may very well find yourself in awe that Angelou made it through such a childhood with her sanity intact.
When a young Maya Angelou’s grandmother tried to take her to a white dentist who owed her a favor, the dentist said, “‘Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than a nigger’s.'” (189) This adds upon the point made earlier. The pain of a toothache combined with the pain of wounded pride. Maya Angelou has massive amounts of pride. She spent most of her years in Stamps, Georgia being insulted by one thing or another. Some of the occasions were insulting (the dentist), while some others were the product of reading too deeply into something, like when a white politician came to speak at her graduation. He spoke of how much new equipment the white school was getting, and how the black community would not be forgotten. Here, her pride was injured because of the way the politician spoke, like their school came second when in fact, in that time and place, they did come second, and the politician did not mean anything negative; he was simply being honest. To have your pride assaulted day in and day out is a horrible way to live.
Maya’s brother did not return home once after attending the movies. When they found him, “Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and death.” (198) All children learn about death eventually. They have to. Death is a part of life. But imagine living where your death is regarded as a burden on society relieved, as opposed to the tragedy that it would be. It makes you wonder why you are viewed as so low, and it makes you wonder if those people who view you as such are correct.
“I was given blood tests, aptitude tests, physical coordination tests, and Rosarchs, then on a blissful day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.” (270) Triumph! Angelou somehow managed to overcome all of society’s efforts to hold her back. Such an accomplishment, though little-remembered today, was a great thing back them. Many little wins like that contributed to winning the equality of today.
“What happened to the moonlight-on-the-prairie feeling? Was there something wrong with me that I couldn’t share a sensation that made poets gush rhyme after rhyme, that made Richard Arlen brave the Arctic wastes and Veronica Lake betray the entire free world? . . . .
“Three weeks later, having thought very little about that strange and strangely empty night, I found myself pregnant.” (283-284) Angelou did not completely understand the connection between sex and love. This in itself is proof of the way she grew up – almost like everyone held her at arm’s length. Her didn’t (or I imagine she didn’t) think that she was old enough to know these things, and even if she was old enough, her grandmother was too old fashioned to adequately explain it. By the time she moved in with her mother, she was past the age that modern kids learn these things. Maybe her mother figured she already knew this stuff, or maybe she figured that anything her daughter needed to know, she would ask her.
But needless to say, one would be hesitant to ask their mother about such a touchy subject. Angelou did not even want to tell her mother that she was pregnant. This unfortunate situation is not exclusive to minorities, but was and still is very common. It occurs less frequently now, that one makes a sexual mistake out of ignorance, due to people being more open about such topics. The fact that the baby is delivered healthily, despite the fact that she was the only one in the area who knew about it for the first eight months of the pregnancy is amazing. It makes you think about how lucky she is. And she is very lucky.
Maya Angelou’s accomplishments are pretty amazing. All of the things she had to overcome to become until she acheived the ultimate goal – equality, and perhaps normalcy. When one is possessed of a childhood such as hers, normalcy may be a thing to strive for, and a thing to cherish once experienced. Indeed, she surpassed the point of normalcy to reach the opposite point from where she started. She went from being someone who was barely noticed, and when she was noticed, regarded with contempt, to one who is admired and revered for her work.