I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Topics: African American, Black people, Race and Ethnicity Pages: 6 (2425 words) Published: March 7, 2011
Kelly Kolodziej
Mrs. Dobos
English 10 Honors, Period 7
14 February 2011
Insecurity of Gaining Pride in Oneself
Have you ever considered how a young, insecure, black girl growing up in the South during the 1930s dealt with physical and verbal discrimination directed toward her African American race? This may not seem like a big deal at first, but consider that this was a time before the African American Civil Rights Movement; a time during which racism and segregation were a fact of life. It was a daily struggle for blacks to live in a society that clearly and openly did not accept them as equal people. They were frequently ridiculed and disrespected just because of the color of their skin. Since they were evidently treated differently, many despised the fact that they were black. As a result of their helpless circumstances, it was understandable that many blacks during that time lacked confidence and self-acceptance. Maya Angelou was an African American girl who grew up during this challenging time. During her childhood, she witnessed and experienced racial prejudice first hand. She had difficultly understanding and accepting the consequences that accompanied belonging to this race during this era. Although she had several bad experiences as a child, she did not allow them to take over the rest of her life. Overcoming prejudice demands one to go through a long, ruthless journey, particularly when the prejudice is directed towards oneself. This is unmistakably displayed in Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At the beginning of the novel Maya, as a young child, dislikes her ethnicity. As the novel progresses and she matures into a teenager, she gains a better understanding of her race and finds some comfort in it as well. Towards the end of the novel, when Maya is a young adult, she shows complete acceptance and outright pride in her heritage. Therefore, as the novel progresses, Maya gradually develops her acceptance in her African American race.

As a young girl, Maya Angelou’s experiences cause her to believe that being black is an undesirable trait. In the beginning chapters of the novel, Maya remembered hearing “…the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate” (Angelou 40). In this remark, it is obvious that in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, racism affected all blacks even down to what they ate. Simple offensive comments like this made Maya feel as though she was a whole separate breed than Whites. As said in Novels for Students, “During these years, she struggled against the odds of being black at a time when prejudice, especially in the South, was at its height” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Novels for Students). This gives support that blacks who resided in the South during the 1930s sometimes lived a brutal and harsh life. In addition, throughout the novel, Maya had to grow up more quickly than the children around her. Some of Maya’s childhood experiences, such as her mother’s boyfriend raping her, have added to the fact that she feels even more displaced and inferior to Whites. During her youth, she witnessed many disturbing things that went along with being black such as physical and verbal discrimination. The “Harshness of Black Southern life” (Angelou 7) is such an example. This includes the struggle of picking cotton on a daily routine, but not earning nearly enough money to support one’s family. Maya despised the fact that she is black and would probably be sentenced to this kind of labor in her near future. Maya’s early experience with a racist dentist also causes her to be resentful towards her ethnicity. A local white dentist refused to treat her toothache and told her that “…my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s” (Angelou 160). Immediately after hearing this, Maya and Momma (Maya’s grandmother) were taken back by...

Cited: Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1969. Print.
Eller, Edward E. in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Rpt. in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 133-152. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 133-152. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
Smith, Sidonie Ann. “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou’s Quest after Self-Acceptance.” Auburn University Southern Humanities Review 7:4 Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1998. Print.
Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’” College Literature 22.n3 Oct. 1995: 91. Rpt. in Expanded Academic ASAP. Literature Resource Center. Gale. eiNetwork. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. Web.
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