Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been widely classified as an African-American autobiography, which chronicles the experiences of a young, black girl in the America of the 1930s. While undoubtedly the work is a valuable contribution to the genre of African-American history, describing as it does the plight of black women living during a time of racial and sexual oppression, it is primarily a tale of survival. By choosing to render a honest account of her own painful insecurities as a child, along with her frequent encounters with racism, sexism, and classism, Angelou takes her readers through the process by which she learnt to value herself and develop a sense of self-worth. Thus, it can be said that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an inspiring work about the human ability to rise above the most painful of circumstances.
Angelou approaches the journey to her discovery of her self-worth almost chronologically, starting at the age of three when she and her brother Bailey are sent to their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. In fact, the very opening sets the note for the revelations that follow. A young girl, dressed in a taffeta dress, stands before a congregation at Church, asking, "What are you looking at me for?" (1) The words chosen to frame the sentence, reveals the child's painful self-consciousness, a fact that is confirmed by her incongruous flight from the scene. Angelou follows through on this dramatic exposition by explaining the sense of ugliness and insecurity that plagued her during those early childhood years.
Indeed, Angelou's description of her self-image evokes the reader's heartfelt sympathy for a young child who was made to feel ugly by a world that equated beauty with white skin and blue eyes: "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...." (4-5) Thus, Maya Angelou begins her autobiography with an opening scene that sets the stage for the reader understanding her feeling of being imprisoned in a cage.
Unfortunately, for Angelou, her perceived lack of beauty was not the only reason for her feeling like a caged bird. Sent away to a strange place by divorced parents, both Maya and her brother Bailey go through the pain of rejection and guilt, typical of young children who are separated from their biological parents. As the adult Maya reminiscences, "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." (6) Chances are that Angelou is referring to her "displacement" here on more than one level, for as her narrative unfolds she gives the reader an acute sense of the feeling of displacement suffered by the entire black community.
Viewed from the eyes of the young girl, Maya, the reader gets a real sense of the effects of segregation on the black community. Forced to live in separate neighborhoods, send their children to segregated schools, travel apart from the white community, it is hardly surprising that the Jim Crow era did little to improve race relations, especially in the South. Indeed, Angelou's vivid portrait of a young girl who wondered whether whites were real brings to life the degree of discrimination that was practiced: "I remember never believing that whites were really real." (20)
In fact, Angelou's work provides horrific insight into the terrorization of black folk by the racist South of the 1930s. Angelou achieves this by recounting several incidents, which reveal the degree to which racism aroused both fear and hatred. For instance, when Bailey comes home late one evening, it is apparent that Momma's anger at him stems more from fear that a lynch mob has victimized him. Both Bailey and Maya learn the meaning of fear, hatred, and alienation all too soon as young children. In fact, they witness more than any young child in his or her formative years should ever have to see, as evidenced by Bailey's watching the delight of a white man over the corpse of a black man, with his genitals cut off.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Momma tries to teach the young children to keep a safe distance from white folk: "Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found...to be safe ones." (39)
Life, however, was to prove to be full of more pitfalls for the young black girl, already suffering from the pain of her low self-image and the knowledge of her community's conflict with a more powerful section of society. Taken away to live with her mother in St. Louis, the lonely little girl responds to Mr. Freeman's embrace hoping that she has, at last, found a loving father figure. The embrace, however, turns into rape the second time he holds her and the child becomes even more displaced. Besides the trauma of the rape, Maya harbors misplaced guilt over Mr. Freeman's death: "Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people.... I had to stop talking." (85)
The seven-year-old child proves to be as good as her words and retreats into total silence. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine the trauma of a seven-year-old child who had already lived almost a lifetime given the painful consequences of a low self-image, racism, and child abuse. At this point, the reader is left wondering if this particular life is headed for a tragic ending. Instead, Maya's silence turns out to be turning point in her life. Sent back to Momma in Stamps, Angelou recalls the year she spent in her own silent world until Mrs. Flowers took an interest in her and introduced her to the world of literature.
It is obvious that literature, though initially an avenue of escape, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the young Maya. As she observes, "language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone that separates him from the lower animals." (95) It can also perhaps be inferred that literature, along with her own desire to escape a life caged by society and feelings of inadequacy, laid the foundation for Maya ultimately following a path of resistance. Of course, she repeatedly acknowledges the fact that she had strong role models in Momma, Vivian, and Mrs. Flowers.
The fact, however, remains that unlike the generations of black people before her, Maya chooses to actively resist her rhetorical imprisonment: "It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead." (176) A move to San Francisco and her experiences there finally lead to Maya's breaking free of her cage. But the foundation for that final break had been laid by years of frustration and a longing for freedom, dignity, and justice.
In wartime San Francisco, Maya, for the first time, begins to feel a sense of belonging: "The air of collective displacement, the impermanence of life...the gauche personalities of the more recent arrivals tended to dissipate my own sense of not belonging." (205) It is also at this time that she realizes, through her observations of the treatment of the Japanese, that discrimination is not something practiced only by the Southern whites. These observations, coupled with her experiences of driving a drunk father home from a Mexican town and a month spent among the homeless, finally teach Maya that she can, indeed, stand on her own feet: "After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race." (216)
Thus, the confidence she gains enhances her self-worth and strengthens her determination to lead a life of her choosing. This is evident in the determination with which she persists till she is hired as a conductor on the San Francisco cable cars, even though she discovers that the street car office does not hire African-Americans. The only thing now left for the young Maya to ascertain is her own sexuality. Suspicious that she may be a lesbian, Maya sets out to determine her sexual identity and ends up pregnant.
A mother at sixteen, Angelou describes her fear and uncertainty over motherhood, refusing to even touch her new-born infant for fear of hurting him. Till her mother, Vivian, intervenes and demonstrates to Maya that she has nothing to fear. Vivian achieves this by insisting that the baby sleep with Maya. That same night, Vivian wakes her…