Angelou's Book I Know Why the Caged Essay

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Angelou's book "I Know why the Caged Bird Sings' was written, according to its author, to serve as a certain purpose and this purpose can be glimpsed in its language. As the poet and critic Opla Moore (1999) remarked, the Caged Bird was intended to demonstrate, at a time, when these issues were just beginning to come into that open and when Blacks were still struggling for recognition, that rape and racism does exist in America and that out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy not only exists but must be recognized as not always the fault of the teenager and often due to other reasons that may be reducible to the state and church itself. Angelou uses poetic and vivid language to shake the very foundations of the reader's stereotypes and narrative way of construing his or her world by shaking conventional platitudes with the discomfiting reality of disruptive factors and introducing these factors in a narrative / linguistic form that uses new conventions to do so. Angelou seeks to move and inform and, in order to do so employs a certain form of language that is demarcated between wiser woman and immature girl and that is visible upon closer analysis of the book.

As Braxton (1999) observes, Angelou uses two distinct strands of voice in her book. There is firstly that of the narrator herself (possibly the mature Maya Angelou) and then there is that of the little girl, who suffering and primitive, describes her situation in her own plaintive manner. Angelou herself remarked of the struggle that she had in doing this:

I have to be so internal, and yet while writing, I have to be apart from the story so that I don't fall into indulgence. Whenever I speak about [the Caged Bird], I always think in terms of the Maya character… so as not to mean me. It's damn difficult for me to preserve this distancing. But it's very necessary. (Braxton, 1999, p.8).

This is the struggle of every author -- to be at once omniscient whilst writing in the voice of the hero / heroine. For Angelou, however, the two interrelated voices may have had a more deliberative, constructive purpose of, on the one hand, informing the reader. This is the mature author guiding the reader by the hand. On the other hand, of inspiring and moving the reader. And this is accomplished by compelling the reader to step into the living, breathing spirit of the little child Maya.

This is done in various ways as with neglect of grammar as, for instance, in the following sentence when Angelou telling of her launching into her grandmother's life and trying to portray the embarrassment that the little Marguerite feels, has Marguerite recounts:

I hadn't so much forgot, as I couldn't bring myself to remember. Other things were more important. (Angelou, p124)

Notice the term' forgot'. A deliberate grammatical error that has its corollaries in various other scenes in the story. The grammatical error, by the way, is an interlude in a chapter that flows back and forth between the mature Angelou directing and the immature Marguerite bringing you into her experience through dramatizing the incidents with her 'girl' infantile speech. Thus:

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel's dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn't hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about "my daddy must have been a Chinaman" (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs' tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil (ibid. pp. 124-126)

The beautiful description of this prose sounds omniscient and wise as thoguh emanating from a mature, seasoned adult who is expert with observation and depiction. The 'angel's dust' and the 'Arkansas red clay' may not have been something that the child of then, so newly arrived in her village in the South may have been aware of. The terms too are only ones that and person more knowledge and erudite than the child of that age would know. 'nappy' being just one instance.

Following instantly from that though is an instant regression into the juvenile language expected of the intellectually under-developed 8-year-old child.

I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children's pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I'd have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I'd get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn't die from a busted head (Angelou, pp. 126-127).

And instantly after that, back again we have the omniscient wise mature voice guiding her readers out of Marguerite's body and informing them 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.

It is an unnecessary insult (p.128)

Notice the sophisticated vocabulary and grammar. This is the comment about the way that Marguerite felt, not in the immediacy of the moment and as described by the girl's primitive, maddened feelings as in the preceding paragraph but by a quieter, more all-seeing and restrained figure who, detached comments on the harshness of the situation and compares it to "the rust on the razor that threatens the throat," an analogy that Marguerite of the moment probably never considered and that only came to her mind decades later when she leaned back, recalled the incident and tried to make it as alive as possible for her readers.

This chapter is an excellent example of the inter-combined two voices, or two styles of language, that Angelou adopts throughout her book. Through the girl vivifying her experiences in her own stream-of-consciousness half-formed wild manner we enter into her and relive the experiences through her lens. Here and again, however, the wise 'adult' voice' extracts us from the little girl so that we see the situation from a different perspective and the grownup directs us how to look at it so that we emerge better informed and wiser for the experience.

It was no wonder that the writing for Angelou becomes so real that she admitted that "when I write autobiographies.. I try to suspend myself from the present. I get myself into a time, into a particular day and I'm there. Each time that I do that, I am also aware that I might not come out, that I might be trapped in that time." (Braxton, 1999, p.13)

Angelou's ability to absorb herself in the writing to the point that she is there can be seen in the immediacy of her prose and is perhaps the factor that gives the linguistic narrative of the book the power that it does. Angelou herself remarked that sometimes her writing and the effort to become the little kid became so real and "physical" that she became 'wet" from the exhaustion and anguish of reliving it "It is so scary. It is so…[continue]

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