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
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.
2. A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.
In this passage in Chapter 8, Angelou captures Maya’s childlike observations about what makes white people different. Her fixation on clothing as a sign of difference also refers back to the incident in church when she suddenly realizes that her fairy-tale taffeta dress is really an old, faded white woman’s hand-me-down. Stamps, Arkansas, suffers so thoroughly from segregation and Maya’s world is so completely enmeshed in the black community that she often finds it hard to imagine what white people look like. They appear to her more like spectral ghosts with mysterious powers—and wonderful possessions—than as fellow human beings. At the same time, from a young age Maya knows that white people bear responsibility for the suffering of the cotton-pickers. She also learns from Momma that it is best not to address any white people directly, as it might lead to mortal danger. Momma goes so far as never to even speak about white people without using the title “they.”
3. My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.
In this scene in Chapter 19, Maya crowds around the Store’s radio with the rest of the community to listen to Joe Louis defend his world heavyweight boxing title. As Maya conveys in this passage, the entire black community has its hopes and psychological salvation bound up in the fists of Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” This passage describes the precarious nature of black pride in the face of hostile oppression, highlighting the staggering and wrenching significance this boxing match held for the community as the community teeters between salvation and despair. The rarity of black people achieving public acclaim in both the black and white communities meant that the few who managed to do so had to bear the expectations of the black community. The match becomes an explicit staging of black against white. Louis’s loss would mean the “fall” of the race and a return to the idea that whites had a right to denigrate black people. Cynics might say that Louis’s win does little more than stave off the black community’s psychological despair. It does not turn the tables on whites because there is no denying that whites still hold all the power. His public victory, however, proves to blacks in the Store that they are the most powerful people in the world and enables them to live another day with strength and vigor in the face of oppression. Racism plays many psychological games with blacks and whites, and perhaps Louis’s public recognition helps to teach both whites and blacks to accept African-Americans as equals.
4. Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate.
In this passage in Chapter 25, Bailey reels from having encountered a dead, rotting black man and having witnessed a white man’s lighthearted satisfaction at seeing the body. Maya emphasizes that the traumatic experience forces him to try to confront a degree of hatred that he cannot comprehend. Maya does not say that he succeeds in comprehending the reasoning behind white hatred. Bailey asks Uncle Willie to explain how colored people had offended whites originally, but both Uncle Willie and Momma try to hide the sickening, debilitating truth from Bailey. This section draws attention to the idea that Bailey’s life depended upon him not understanding or attempting to understand how racism operates against black men. Bailey’s experience here precipitates Momma’s decision to remove the children from both the physical and psychological dangers associated with growing up in the South. This quote also illustrates the fact that while Angelou writes mostly about the experiences of black girls and women living in the segregated South, she also empathizes with the experiences of her male relatives.
5. The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.
This passage in Chapter 34 addresses why black women have strength of character. Maya says that most of the strong black women in her novel are “survivors.” They have strong characters quite simply because they have survived against impossible odds. Therefore, they obviously show heroism, courage, and strength. Moreover, Maya states that the odds pitted against black women include not only the triple threat of sexism, racism, and black powerlessness, but also the simultaneous presence of “common forces of nature” that assault and confuse all children. Maya has had to grow up more quickly than the children around her. Her experiences—driving the car in Mexico, living in the junkyard, returning to witness Bailey move out of the house, and then successfully fighting to get a job as the first black conductor on the San Francisco streetcars, rather than go back to a school where she would not belong—have made her feel displaced and older than her years. Maya is already on her way toward becoming “a formidable character” as a result of the many assaults she deals with in “her tender years,” but this does not mean that Maya is an adult. Maya’s discussion of the “common forces of nature” foreshadows how her journey of survival has yet to meet the obstacles of adolescence, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy. These obstacles face all children, but for black females, they exacerbate an already difficult situation.
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