Literary Analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Thomas Lim
December 9, 2010
English 2
Professor Padilla
Themes of Racism and Segregation in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou
The purpose of this paper is to introduce, discuss, and analyze the novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Specifically it will discuss the themes of racism and segregation, and how these strong themes are woven throughout this moving autobiography. Maya Angelou recounts the story of her early life, including the racism and segregation she experiences throughout her formative years. With wit, sincerity, and remarkable talent, Angelou portrays racism as a product of ignorance and prejudice. However, she finds the strength to rise above this crippling condition. Angelou opens her biography with the dreams of a child, whishing she could be white in a white world. She writes, "Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy godmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, whit nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil" (Angelou 4-5). Throughout her youth, she faces a world of prejudice and racism. Instead of embracing her heritage, she wants to be white, because the whites are the people with power and money. The whites were also the people that controlled the blacks and Angelou finds out, often the hard way, as her life continues. One literary critic notes, "Angelou's account of her childhood and adolescence chronicles her frequent encounters with racism, sexism, and classism at the same time that she describes the people, events, and personal qualities that helped her to survive the devastating effects of her environment" (Megna-Wallace 2). While this book chronicles a lifetime of racism and prejudice, Angelou's eloquent use of the language almost softens the blow by making it lyrical and beautiful to read, but the underlying rage and distress at the differences between blacks and whites is never far from the surface in this autobiography. Sent by her parents to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou and her brother witness firsthand the difficulties blacks have earning a living in the agricultural South, and this begins a slow-burning rage against racism and prejudice that will last her entire life. She writes, "In cotton-picking time the late afternoons revealed 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" (Angelou 10). She shows that life was unbelievably difficult for those poor black people who had nothing to look forward to but work, debt, and despair, while it teaches her lessons about her own life, existence, and outlook. Another clue to this existence is the time when the sheriff warns Uncle Willie of an impending Ku Klux Klan raid. Willie hides in a vegetable bin, even though he is disabled and nearly incapable of molesting anyone. The blacks accept this treatment because they have to in order to survive. Nevertheless, even at her young age, Angelou resents the "benevolent" white man who warns her family but allows the behavior to continue. Her bitterness at this and many other events colors her life and indicates just how deeply prejudice ran in the South, along with how it affected so many people's lives. She alludes to this when she writes, "All of childhood's unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there" (Angelou 19). It is clear that Angelou's childhood has had a major affect on her life, her outlook, and her own views about race and prejudice. Angelou encounters an entirely different world when she and her brother move to St. Louis to live with her mother and her family. Here, she encounters black people like her mother and grandmother, who actually have some power in the community, and who live an entirely different life than the rural life...
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