I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou
Quotes

Race

Quotes Race
Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.

The former sheriff tells Momma to hide Willie from members of the Ku Klux Klan who are angered that a black man had some unspecified contact with a white woman. This warning, and the language used in it, shows the violent racism that hangs over the town of Stamps. As a “cripple,” Willie would easily have been recognized, so clearly he must have had no involvement in the incident. This leads us to believe the Klan members simply look to punish any black man for the supposed actions of another of their race. Further, the community of Stamps accepts the Klan’s lawless control, even softening the image of these brutal, hate-filled men by referring to them as “boys.”

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.

Maya describes the town where she grew up as wholly segregated. Black and white sections divide the town, which features separate schools and sections in the movie theater. The only white people Maya and her neighbors see with any regularity are the “powhitetrash” who live on Momma’s land and shop at her store. Because the two races rarely comingle, no familiarity or acceptance develops between the races. Blacks and whites do not see one another as individuals and people but as aliens.

The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose. Any break from routine may herald for them unbearable news.

On a night Bailey returns late from the movies, Momma begins to worry that harm has befallen him. Here, Maya emphasizes that the story of black women has too often been told against the backdrop of violence perpetrated against the men. Black males may be beaten or lynched based on an unfounded accusation, a suspicion of wrongdoing, or simply their skin color, as evidenced when the Klan went on the prowl for a black victim earlier in the book. Black families endured such anxiety and fear on a regular basis, never knowing when whites might bring them to tragedy.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world.

The black community in Stamps gathers in Momma’s store to listen to the black boxer Joe Louis defeat a white man to capture the world heavyweight championship. This boxing match represents far more than one boxing title to the black community. Whether the match ended in victory or defeat, Louis’s performance symbolizes their own past, present, and future. The black community, sorely lacking in heroes, fully intertwines with Louis, resting all their hopes on his shoulders and looking to him to show that they, too, are good enough. With Louis’s victory, he shows that a black man can be the best.

Odd that the homeless children, the silt of war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man.

Living in a junkyard with other homeless youth, Maya, for the first time, feels unburdened by her race. The kids she lives with come from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but they work together to survive. No one feels any less a person because of some characteristic like the color of her skin. Here, Maya experiences the opposite of racism—she experiences acceptance for herself as an individual, not rejection for her appearance or the race she represents. Her value derives from how she contributes to the communal society the youth have created in the absence of adults.