Analysis: Chapters 1–5
The lines from the poem Maya cannot finish, “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . .” capture two of the most significant issues she struggles with in her childhood and young adulthood: feeling ugly and awkward and never feeling attached to one place. First, Maya imagines that though people judge her unfairly by her awkward looks, they will be surprised one day when her true self emerges. At the time, she hopes that she will emerge as if in a fairy-tale as a beautiful, blond white girl. By the age of five or six, Maya has already begun to equate beauty with whiteness, a sign that the racism rampant in the society in which she grows up has infiltrated her mind. Second, uprooted and sent away from her parents at age three, Maya has trouble throughout her life feeling that she belongs anywhere or that she has “come to stay.” Her sense of displacement may stem in part from the fact that black people were not considered full-fledged Americans, but primarily she feels abandoned by her family. When she and Bailey arrive in Stamps, the note posted on their bodies is not addressed to Annie Henderson, but rather “To Whom It May Concern.” The opening scene in the church introduces these important issues while also conveying the frustration, humiliation, disillusionment, and, finally, liberation that define Maya’s childhood. The childish voice interspersed throughout Angelou’s adult reflections suggests that she is probably five or six years old at the time of the opening scene. Maya does not anchor her prologue in a specific time, suggesting that she continues to experience the emotions of this episode over and over again throughout her life. The prologue ends with an unforgettable description that Angelou uses to foreshadow the nature of the story to come. She says that growing up as a black girl in the South is like putting a razor to one’s throat, but, even worse, when that black girl feels alienated from her own black community, her sense of displacement is like the rust on the razor, making life even more unbearable. She says that her displacement is “an unnecessary insult.” Since the opening scene shows that Angelou was aware of her displacement, she prepares us to witness a childhood full of such extra insults. Nevertheless, it is significant that Maya manages to escape the critical, mocking church community and laugh about her liberation, even though she knows that she will be punished for it. Maya’s escape foreshadows her eventual overcoming of the limitations of her childhood. Maya’s experiences in the Store (“Store” is capitalized by Angelou) tell much about black rural small-town life during the 1930s. After the Civil War and after they had been promised land and animals with which to farm, blacks in the South entered into a period of American history nearly as discriminatory and violent as the period of slavery. The post-Reconstruction era, known as the Jim Crow era, witnessed the systematic destruction of the black farmer in the South at the hands of resentful whites who sought to undermine the black entitlement to property, animals, financial support, or even wages. The Jim Crow era also brought with it severe segregation laws that affected every walk of life and spurred the development of white racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized black communities. Positioned in the Store at the center of the community, Maya vividly and poignantly describes the cotton pickers’ plight, describing their beleaguered bodies, their torn clothes, and their wearied faces when returning from the fields. Moreover, though Stamps is so thoroughly segregated that, as a child, Maya feels she hardly knows what white people look like, the social and economic effects of segregation profoundly affect Maya, her family, and her experiences. Maya recounts Mr. Steward’s warning of the white lynch mob as an example of the conflicted nature of many whites’ acts of kindness toward...
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