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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Critique

The book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was educational in that it depicts the harsh childhood that the author, Maya Angelou, led. In reading the story, I found myself enveloped in the book. The book’s title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, seems to mean that Maya can relate to a caged bird singing. She has become caged that she lives in a time of racism and that her gender makes it all the harder. She relates to the reason the bird sings at the end of the book; she finally accepts her womanhood and her colour as what it is, not as it could have been.

At the beginning of the book, the reader sees how far racism has distorted Maya’s reality. Maya believes that by wearing a dress, she would look ‘like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. (P1)’ But the dress was ‘a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway.’ Because of the blatant racism that Maya faced and the hard life that a black child-led, she was made to think that white people were better than black people. She would fantasize that her ‘real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let [her] straighten…’ and her ‘light blues eyes’ would replace the eyes that were ‘small and squinty. (P3)’ Maya says her appearance is merely a ‘black ugly dream that she will wake out of.

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She believed in the superiority of whites that she ‘knew God was white too. (P40)’ She grew up in a time when race and appearance were critical and made the difference in how you were treated. The idea that appearances were important was illustrated through Maya’s uncle Willie. Her uncle was disabled and had trouble speaking clearly. Although Maya sees the cotton pickers come in happy and boastful every morning, they are downtrodden and bitter after the picking is done. At sundown, the ‘people dragged, rather than their empty cotton sacks. (P7)’ It showed that even these cotton pickers wished to live through fantasy, but reality soon come back through the day. The idea of fantasy vs. the stark contrast of reality is very much a part of the story, shown through the cotton pickers and Maya’s uncle Willie. Her uncle had to live life as a disabled person and was many people mistreated him since he was black and was crippled.

One time, while Maya walked into the store, she finds her uncle Willie standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. (P9)” Because uncle Willie was tired of being crippled, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of the life of a disabled person. Although Maya would never know “why it was important to him that the couple… would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock, (p11)” she understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since. Prejudice definitely affects Maya and her family. People in Stamps believed in the racism so much that the whites ‘were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream, except on July Fourth. (P40)” Segregation, very much a part of prejudice, was so extreme that at Maya remembered ‘never believing that whites were really real. (P20)’

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At one time, the ‘boys,’ racist white people who lynched black men, came to Stamps to find a black man to lynch under the premise that the black man had ‘done it with a white woman.’ When the sheriff, Mr. Steward, came to warn Maya’s grandmother of the danger Uncle Willie would be in when the ‘boys’ would come, Maya and Bailey hid Willie under sacks of vegetables. The sheriff’s nonchalance that conveyed his power over even dumb animals… and how much more capable he would be with Negroes,’ was because of racism. Despite his help, he still expected the black men to be terrified and hide from the ‘boys.’ The image of Uncle Willie under the potatoes, unable to help to drool on the potatoes, is both pathetic and empathetic; he shouldn’t have to hide in such an undignified way, and he also should not have to fear a violent reprisal for an act he did not commit.

Later in her childhood, Maya and her brother Bailey learned of an actress, a white woman named Key Francis, who resembled her mother. Thereafter, both would attend all of the movies showing the actress. Ironically, Maya and Bailey identify a glamorous, white movie star as a mother figure, but this shows the hypocrisy of racial division and the class and economic privileges that go along with being white. If their mother were more beautiful, talented, and lovely in real life than this idealized actress on screen, then perhaps she deserved the same attention and privilege. Instead, however, their mother would be considered more lowly simply because she is black and was not allowed the privilege of being considered alongside a white woman.

Even on graduation day, racism made itself present. During the graduation, a man named Mr. Donleavy gave a speech to Maya’s graduating class. In the speech, the graduating classes were harshly reminded of the limits on their futures just because they were black; they were not expected to attain professional careers. The girls weren’t expected to do anything but become wives and mothers. As much as they might aspire, the reality was that there were firm limits on what they could do in society, simply because of their skin color. Maya was repulsed by this idea, that the fate of her schoolmates was already decided because of prejudice. Angelou alluded to Gabriel Prosser, George Washington Carver, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman to show examples of black Americans who could achieve, despite society’s biases.

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But, even they were rare examples of success. Henry Reed, the valedictorian, gave a speech after the speech of Mr. Donleavy. The allusions to Hamlet in Henry Reed’s speech were ironic, coming after Mr. Donleavy’s speech. Together with the “Negro National Anthem,” Maya seemed to realize that she was black and that those ancient works of literature didn’t address her situation like those that specifically address the black situation in America. Angelou made embracing this song synonymous with embracing her skin color. She was proud of who she was and quit her many years spent trying to deny it.

Another example of racism evident in Stamps was the refusal of Dr. Licoln, a white dentist, to operate on Maya’s cavities. Dr. Lincoln’s statement that he would “rather stick [his] hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s, (p160)” was the most blatant example of racism so far in the book. But Momma Henderson could not ignore the racial codes of behavior that she had learned and could not stand up to Dr. Lincoln. Maya, although young, was already beginning to feel anger toward racism, and she was also angry that Momma was unable to stand up to white people when they were completely out of line. Momma seemed to embody some inconsistent traits, as she was usually bold and strong, but when confronted with racism, she became weak and quiet.

Maya’s fantasy about Momma standing up to Dr. Lincoln seemed to emulate the books and comic books Maya read. Momma became a powerful hero in this scene, with magical powers. Angelou’s descriptions have Dr.Lincoln in a humbled position as Momma became more and more authoritative. Momma also had “eloquent command of English (p161)” and the power to kill people who were rude to her in this scene. Maya projected the traits she wanted Momma to have onto the character in this fantasy, expressing her frustrations with Momma’s inability to stand up for herself, even though she is a strong person. It hurt Maya deeply to see Momma resign herself to white people’s insults; Maya wanted Momma to throw away her ideas of racial subservience and react to those people like the equal, or even superior figure, that she is.

In Stamps, the people all listened to Joe Louis’s fight in a boxing match. He is, of course, black and the people of Stamps pin their hopes on him. Angelou compares Louis being defeated to “our people falling” or being “back in slavery” as an overstatement. The Louis fight symbolizes their own fight for equality, soon taking center stage with the Civil Rights movement. Although his victory might lead to greater respect for black athletes and may be spread to the black community somehow, it certainly won’t change everything with just a boxing match. The outcome, though it might make small gains for them, certainly will not be as overwhelming as Angelou, in particular, envisions it to be.

Throughout most of her childhood, Maya has had trouble with her father. Her dad, who acted like a white man, did not play much of a role in her life. He was usually away, and when they spend time together with his new girlfriend, she loses touch with him. His girlfriend hates her and stabs Maya when they argue. Her father does not do anything. When Maya is sent to see her father’s friend instead of a hospital, she understands that her father dares not risk his reputation and instead risks his already precarious relationship with his daughter. After being left in the care of some more of her father’s friends, she runs away and becomes a part of a group of homeless children. She later returns with no one the wiser. Her father never searches for her, and his uncaring way shows that Maya never really has a father figure until she meets her mother’s new boyfriend, Daddy Clidell.

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Maya also begins to see gender as a major issue in her life. She sees the difference in gender roles and representations in the books and comics she reads. She begins to think that her life would be better as a boy, and she could do more. The theme of gender is significant in Maya’s story, as she struggles against the limits that women encounter because of gender. When Mr. Freeman rapes Maya, her mother’s boyfriend, she cannot understand what happened to her, and she becomes afraid of Mr. Freeman. At this point, Maya feels she is imprisoned in a body that is black and female. In the trial, she lies to the judge that he had touched her before, and later, he is killed after being released from jail. She thinks that she had done something wrong but didn’t realize she has done anything wrong. She can escape from neither of these physical realities and the prejudice or misfortune that both black and female might cause her.

While she is helped by the wealthy black woman named Mrs. Flowers and begins to speak again, it would only be at the end of the book when she accepts herself as who she is. At the end of the book, Maya is pregnant. Her mother tells Maya, “if you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking”; this is valuable advice for Maya and also one of the lessons of the novel. Although Maya has acted rashly and made mistakes growing up, in the end, she’s still a good person, and things have come out for the best. Maya learns a valuable life lesson: the value of following her heart; she will make mistakes in the years to come, but she manages to follow her heart, and everything ends up being for the best.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Critique. (2021, Sep 01). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from