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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by: Maya Angelou

Important Quotations Explained

1. 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.

This vivid assertion ends the opening section of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Although this section, which acts as a prologue, mostly emphasizes the point of view of Maya at five or six years old, this statement clearly comes from Angelou’s adult voice. Looking back on her childhood experiences, Maya notes that she not only fell victim to a hostile, racist, and sexist society, but to other social forces as well, including the displacement she felt from her family and her peers. Maya feels displaced primarily because when she was three years old, her parents sent her away to live with her grandmother. This early separation, as well as subsequent ones, leaves her feeling rootless for most of her childhood. Angelou’s autobiography likens the experience of growing up as a black girl in the segregated American South to having a razor at one’s throat. Her constant awareness of her own displacement—the fact that she differed from other children in appearance and that she did not have a sense of belonging associated with anyone or anyplace—becomes the “unnecessary insult” that she must deal with at such a young age. Over the course of the work, Maya details numerous negative effects of such displacement, including her susceptibility to Mr. Freeman’s sexual molestation.