I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiography of Maya Angelou. I find it to be a rather interesting novel, since it is based on a true story. It also helps the reader understand how black people lived and felt during that period. In the novel, there is a wide range of themes, from family ties, to rape, and even literacy. In Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the three main themes are racism, prejudice and the roll of black women. The first and most visible theme in the novel is racism. During 1969, it is common to see a black person as inferior to a white person.
In the novel, Angelou shows the crudeness of white Southern attitudes toward African Americans. For example, in chapter 24, Marguerite goes to the dentist and Dr. Lincoln, a white man, refuses to treat her because she is black. He says: “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s. ” (Angelou 189). Not even because of necessary medical attention does a white person leave aside the race and treat a black patient. Putting aside her strong feelings against racism, Angelou demonstrates how she develops the understanding of the rules for surviving in a racist society.
For example, in chapter 5, when the “powhitetrash” mock Momma, she stood humming while Marguerite is filed with rage, indignation and helplessness. Momma instead shows her how to maintain dignity and pride while dealing with racism. With her indifference towards the disrespectful white girls, Momma serves as a role model to all black people in her community by being the bigger person in a situation like this. The second theme in the novel is prejudice. Maya, her friends and her relatives will always be subject to prejudice simply because they are black.
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For example, in chapter 23, during Marguerite’s graduation, Mr. Edward Donleavy gives a speech in which he mentions how blacks only achieve greatness through sports, not through academics: One of the first-line football tacklers at Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College had graduated from good old Lafayette Country Training School… One of the best basketball players at Fisk sank his first ball right here at Lafayette Country Training School. (Angelou 179) The fact that Mr. Donleavy assumes that students from this school are only good for sports, simply because of their race, shows how he speaks based on prejudice beliefs.
Prejudice in the novel is seen from both sides: in white people and black people. Since most white folks in Stamps mistreat blacks, black people assume all whites are the same, which means they are also prejudice against white people. For example, in chapter 2, Marguerite mentions her passion for literature, especially for Shakespeare, a white writer. She says how Bailey and she can’t mention Shakespeare to Momma: “she’d question us about the author and we’d have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn’t matter to her whether he was dead or not. (Angelou 14).
Shakespeare is a great writer, but Momma doesn’t know this since she is prejudice against white writers and doesn’t give herself the chance to find out about this writers greatness. The third theme presented in the novel is black women’s roll. Angelou presents women’s condition during this period and describes their lives in a male-dominated society. She also shows how it’s even harder being a black woman, having to overcome this storm of sexism and racism. Some women are able to do so and become great.
For example, Momma is a successful black woman, who owns a store and is considered to be wealthy. She is able to overcome the condition she is submitted to by society and become the most successful black woman in Stamps. Marguerite also serves as an example for black women’s roll during 1969. She lives in a hostile world defined by beauty in terms of whiteness: 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 this kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?
My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them… (Angelou 2) Marguerite believes the only way to be a beautiful and successful woman is by being white. With the help of strong female role models in her family and community: Momma, Vivian, Grandmother Baxter, and Bertha Flowers, she is able to overcome her racist and sexist beliefs, succeed in her life and become the great woman she is known to be today.
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a true story about the author’s hard life during the 1960’s, a time in which black people are seen as inferior in many different aspects by society. The novel shows how they fight against racism, sexism and prejudice, and how white people also experience prejudice from black people. These themes are presented in the most realistic and crude way possible. In the end, Maya transforms from a victim of prejudice and racism with an inferiority complex to a self-confident young woman who is able to react to racism with dignity and pride.
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