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Themes

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Racism and Segregation

Maya confronts the insidious effects of racism and segregation in America at a very young age. She internalizes the idea that blond hair is beautiful and that she is a fat black girl trapped in a nightmare. Stamps, Arkansas, is so thoroughly segregated that as a child Maya does not quite believe that white people exist. As Maya gets older, she is confronted by more overt and personal incidents of racism, such as a white speaker’s condescending address at her eighth-grade graduation, her white boss’s insistence on calling her Mary, and a white dentist’s refusal to treat her. The importance of Joe Louis’s world championship boxing match to the black community reveals the dearth of publicly recognized African American heroes. It also demonstrates the desperate nature of the black community’s hope for vindication through the athletic triumph of one man. These unjust social realities confine and demean Maya and her relatives. She comes to learn how the pressures of living in a thoroughly racist society have profoundly shaped the character of her family members, and she strives to surmount them.

Debilitating Displacement

Maya is shuttled around to seven different homes between the ages of three and sixteen: from California to Stamps to St. Louis to Stamps to Los Angeles to Oakland to San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Francisco. As expressed in the poem she tries to recite on Easter, the statement “I didn’t come to stay” becomes her shield against the cold reality of her rootlessness. Besieged by the “tripartite crossfire” of racism, sexism, and power, young Maya is belittled and degraded at every turn, making her unable to put down her shield and feel comfortable staying in one place. When she is thirteen and moves to San Francisco with her mother, Bailey, and Daddy Clidell, she feels that she belongs somewhere for the first time. Maya identifies with the city as a town full of displaced people.

Maya’s personal displacement echoes the larger societal forces that displaced blacks all across the country. She realizes that thousands of other terrified black children made the same journey as she and Bailey, traveling on their own to newly affluent parents in northern cities, or back to southern towns when the North failed to supply the economic prosperity it had promised. African Americans descended from slaves who were displaced from their homes and homelands in Africa, and following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, blacks continued to struggle to find their place in a country still hostile to their heritage.

Resistance to Racism

Black peoples’ resistance to racism takes many forms in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Momma maintains her dignity by seeing things realistically and keeping to herself. Big Bailey buys flashy clothes and drives a fancy car to proclaim his worth and runs around with women to assert his masculinity in the face of dehumanizing and emasculating racism. Daddy Clidell’s friends learn to use white peoples’ prejudice against them in elaborate and lucrative cons. Vivian’s family cultivates toughness and establishes connections to underground forces that deter any harassment. Maya first experiments with resistance when she breaks her white employer’s heirloom china. Her bravest act of defiance happens when she becomes the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Blacks also used the church as a venue of subversive resistance. At the revival, the preacher gives a thinly veiled sermon criticizing whites’ charity, and the community revels in the idea of white people burning in hell for their actions.

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THEMES QUIZ

The town of Stamps is so segregated that as a child Maya does not quite believe that ___.
White people exist
It’s part of America
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Great autobiography

by maria106, November 14, 2012

Through a series of personal events, feelings, and thoughts, Maya Angelou is able to captivate its readers with her recounting of her life from her early years up to late adolescence. As readers, we are able to see how Maya grows from the insecure little girl in Arkansas to the strong woman who realizes that she can trust herself and will be able to keep moving forward, which is clearly shown when she realizes that she can take care of her son.

During the last chapter of the book, I feel that Maya does a great job describing the feeli... Read more

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296 out of 330 people found this helpful

i know why the caged bird sings

by lwxie, August 18, 2015

It should tell the plot. but it didn't have the plot. but I read the story. then I figured out the plot of the story. This is a good app to use when you have a lot of wok to do. thanks,

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1 out of 1 people found this helpful

Not a fan!

by ella666666, December 06, 2015

I honestly think this book was so hard to follow and so incredibly boring. Although Maya is a respectable and amazing woman, her autobiography might've been one of the slowest and most boring books I've ever read, just beating to a crumby book about the Irish potato famine way back when. If your a big reader and a Maya fan then go for it... but if you're not then than you might become incredibly apathetic about this book. Fast.

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11 out of 16 people found this helpful

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