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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a fascinating eye opener to the Jim Crow period in the New South. It has a greater impact than textbooks on what it was like to be African American at that time in history because it is a story of real experiences that appeals to the readers’ emotions like no history textbook ever can. While Maya Angelou’s story is unique in that her experiences are hers alone, it is also a universal story that shows how black people were treated during that period and likewise how that affected their views of the world and, consequently, of themselves.

The Jim Crow period can be defined as “the systematic practice of promoting the segregation of the Negro peoples: favoring or promoting the segregation of the Negroes.” Jim Crow Laws were laws created for the ultimate purpose of keeping blacks and whites segregated. At the time they used the phrase “separate but equal,” however that wasn’t really the case: African Americans were not viewed by most whites to be truly equal citizens; they were instead looked down upon. In Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel, she illustrates for her readers the experiences she went through as a black girl growing up in the United States during the time of segregation.

The two characters that stand out most for me in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” are Marguerite, naturally, because she is the main character, and Momma because she was the main caregiver who Maya spent years with and who had a great influence on Maya’s life. Momma, unlike Maya’s mother, lived in the South all her life. She knows of all the struggle, hard work, determination, and faith that living in Stamps, Arkansas requires. She is a strong person who believes in obedience and good will. She loves Marguerite and never hesitates to teach her a lesson in life. Momma is a stable, reliable person that Maya knows she can always depend on to be wise and strong.

Two episodes, in particular, in the novel stand out most in mind. The first is the rape of Maya by Mr. Freeman, Maya’s mother’s boyfriend. The second is the episode at the white doctor’s office where Momma puts up a fight to have Maya treated there even though she is black.

When Mr. Freeman raped Maya she was only eight years old and she didn’t even realize that what he did to her was bad-all she knew for sure at the time was that he hurt her. She thought she must have done something wrong for him to hurt her like that, and that it was so shameful of her that she must tell no one or her brother, Bailey, would be killed. Why Mr. Freeman would kill Bailey she did not understand at all. Although things of this sort still happen, I think this incident helps us to better understand the time of the Jim Crow South in that she was so ignorant and naive that she didn’t understand at age eight that Mr. Freeman was touching her in ways that weren’t appropriate. Also, growing up in the South at that time, she was accustomed to being belittled and mistreated by whites. Mr. Freeman was a black man, but he was lighter than she. The lighter a person was, the more respected he was because he was less black than others. She figured, not only could he get away with it because he was a grown man, but also because he was better than she because he was lighter skinned. That was the mind frame at that time in the New South.

The doctor’s office incident is even greater evidence of what it meant to be African American in the New South during the Jim Crow period because what happened is more directly related to racism and power by color of skin. Maya had rotten teeth that badly needed the attention of a dentist. The closest dentist was one that only treated white folks, but since he owed a favor to Momma she thought he would at least consider taking a look at Maya. He refused. On the surface, at first anyway, he appeared to simply want to follow policy. If he let one Negro be treated and word got out then all the other Negroes would be after him to be treated as well. When Momma begged him to do the right thing he got upset and heatedly replied “Annie (Momma), my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a Nigger’s.” He knew that since slaves had been freed he couldn’t legally force colored people into anything, but he also couldn’t be forced to treated anyone who 1/8th black or more. At that time anyone who was even 1/8th black was considered to be colored. Although the lighter the skin the better one was thought to be, black was still black when it came to segregation.

Maya Angelou’s novel helped me to grasp a better understanding of the Jim Crow period in the New South, however, I find it a bit difficult to describe exactly how, so I’ll just tell you what I learned . . .

Even though African Americans were exposed to all the hate and distrust of white people, and although they were subject to segregation for all those years, not to mention slavery all those years before, they were able to retain their faith. As a people they were strong. They have a strong cultural background, a strong sense of who they are, and a strong faith. They were able to survive years of unspeakable treatment, and perhaps even become stronger for it. At the time of slavery and then segregation they doubted their own self worth at times, but deep down they always knew that they were worthy of being regarded as equal. The caged bird sang because it knew that there was a better place and a better time ahead. It sang for freedom and equality, for truth and justice, for love and forgiveness. It sang because it would not give in under the pressures of being caged. It would find a better place even if that place were only existent in its heart. If the blacks ever did hate the whites at least it was only because we gave them a reason to, whereas we have no excuse for the hate we surrounded them with.

I enjoyed this book because it was an emotional and biographical look at our nation’s not so long ago history. It gave a perspective on what real people were really going through and feeling during that time. It adds to the understanding of how we got to where we are today socially as well as developmentally as a new country. There were certain incidents in the novel that honestly grossed me out, such as the rape, but the truth of the matter is these things happened, and not just to Maya. Many, many blacks and whites went through very similar experiences, and it would be a crime to simply ignore that these things happened. The only way we can really increase our understanding of history and of ourselves is to learn through the past and through others experiences. I think it would not hurt for everyone to read this book. It is not always pleasant, to say the least, but it’s real, and that’s what matters. There are some places where the book is banned because of pornographic content, premarital sex, and the questioning of homosexuality, but these are all real issues and need to be discussed.


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