Displacement, a Theme in Maya Angelou´s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The feeling of displacement leaves a painful hole in one's heart. Whether a person is a male or female, white or black, lives in the North or South, or young or old, displacement takes a toll on their character and personality. Maya Angelou creates a theme of displacement in her novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou's novel has been critiqued by many notable scholars for being a classic autobiography. The critics note the importance of the setting to show universal displacement and the use of characterization to display the influences in Angelou's life.

The critics also note that Angelou's diction and tone allow her pain and suffering to be evident throughout her novel and into her life. Angelou's use of setting shows how she was personally affected by displacement. She also uses characterization and tone to personalize her childhood experiences. Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is critiqued to have a theme of displacement based on the setting, characterization, and tone. 

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Many scholars note that the setting in Angelou's novel is necessary to understand the theme of displacement. The novel's main setting is Stamps, Arkansas. Stamps, Arkansas is a small southern town, with a great deal of racial segregation. One scholar notes that the novel takes place in the middle of strong segregation in the South (Henke). This setting is important to the novel because it explains why the different races were mistreated and displaced. McMurry points out that the blacks were displaced just because their skin colors (McMurry 8).

In the novel, Angelou labels the two sides of Stamps as white Stamps and black Stamps. Angelou explains the segregation and says, “A light shade had been pulled down between the black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough” (Angelou…….). In the setting of black Stamps, the men and women work for and are controlled by the white people. Not only is Maya displaced because of her race in Stamps, she is also displaced because of her setting changes. Maya has moved many times in her childhood and adolescent years. When she was three she was shipped off to Stamps with her older brother. Maya then moves to St. Louis to live with her mother. Post rape and mid-muteness, Maya moves back to Stamps. After school Maya moves back to St. Louis, then Los Angeles. Because Angelou moves often, she does not find a place where she is comfortable with the residents (Arensberg). Scholars note her personal displacement based on her moving habits. The scholars note that setting, including the era of segregation and the changing of location, helps the reader depict the theme of displacement. 

The setting in Angelou's novel is personally related to the pain of her displacement. Although she grew up with her grandmother, Angelou feels as though she does not have a mother in her life. While growing up, Angelou notices all of the little girls with their mothers. When Angelou finally meets her mother Angelou decides that she is very different from her and is the unwanted child. She explains the difference between her and Bailey when they first met their mother, “They were more alike than she and I, or even he and I. They both had physical beauty and personality, so I figured it figured” (Angelou ………). Angelou believes her displacement is her fault because she isn’t worthy of being her mother’s daughter. She also believes her displacement is caused by the inability to call a place home. Maya feels as though she is living in two different worlds. With Momma in Stamps, Angelou lives a pure lifestyle filled with religion and racism; however, in St. Louis with her mother she is surrounded by a fast paced lifestyle filled with equality and alcohol. Both lifestyles are private and portable, but they do no fulfill her want to call a place home. Angelou’s personal displacement is based on her inability to call a place home and lack of a mother. 

The influence of characters in the novel has greatly affected the theme of displacement. Angelou sees momma as the caretaker of the novel; however, scholars have noticed her defeats and struggles in the novel. Throughout the novel, it is evident that the prejudice displayed by society defeats Momma in many ways. Momma is defeated in her power and control to protect Bailey and Maya. Slowly, the abuse and disregard from the white people defeats Momma and she becomes powerless. Her protective influence on the kids is diminished with her age (Neubauer). The refusal of care from the white dentist discourages Momma and her ability to fight for her race. Although she is being physically and verbally abused, Momma stays calm while the white children are present.

Momma does not confront them because she respects her important role in society. Momma is characterized by her defeats and struggles; likewise, Angelou is characterized by her struggles. Maya has struggled through many traumatic events in her childhood including divorce, rape, and teenage pregnancy. Throughout the struggles she continues to display a reoccurring strife, her struggle to be loved and accepted (Henke).

Maya’s struggle to find her identity also adds to her feeling of displacement. Johnson writes on Maya’s self image, “the questions physical articulation is barely audible; its emotional articulation wails insufferably through the child’s whole being, wails her self consciousness, wails her diminished self-image: ‘What you looking at me for?’-‘What you looking at me for?’- over and over until it becomes, ‘Is something wrong with me?’ For this child too much is wrong” (Johnson 52).

The scholars try to depict if Maya’s character is personally made, or if it is made to represent the race in the era (Walker). The characterization of Maya displays the defeat and struggles she faces in her displacement. Both Momma’s and Maya’s defeats help aid in the theme of displacement in the society.

The characterization of Momma and Maya are seen on a personal level when Maya’s emotions are present. Momma, the caretaker in the novel, cares for the store, the house, and the children. Momma does everything she can to make sure the children are disciplined and religious. Even though Momma is strict, she resembles a big loveable person (Johnson 55). The children can go to her when they feel displaced for a big encompassing hug. Even though Maya does not see Momma as her mother, she does not feel lonely and displaced around her. Maya’s personal thoughts of herself explain why she feels displaced from society. Maya views herself as a big boned, big breasted, ugly black girl. She says about herself, “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” (Angelou…..). Maya knows that she is displaced from her society and she knows her looks do not help. Maya is not the beauty queen of a pageant nor is she a genius at school. Maya is a smart, unique minded girl who has struggled and overcome many adversities in her life, but she does not understand her worth. Her misunderstanding of her character shows why she is displaced. Without the characterization of Momma and Maya, the reader would not be able to completely understand the theme of displacement. 

Scholars have become aware of the diction and tone used in Angelou’s novel. Maya’s tone is evident from the very beginning off the novel. During the first scene Maya becomes embarrassed after forgetting the words to a poem. Her tone shows that she is embarrassed by what has happened and believes that she has ruined her life. This feeling is carried on with her as she grows into a teenager and dreams of herself as a pretty white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Her tone shows how she is embarrassed for being an ugly black girl (McMurry). Henke believes that Maya shows major anecdotes of displacement. Maya’s tone of isolationism is evident of the theme of displacement. Johnson believes that Maya’s narration is necessary for understanding the theme, “The adult narration captures the emblematic memories, vivid and compelling in themselves, and weaves them together to illustrate and anchor the truth of the story as a whole” (Johnson 40). Johnson explains the need for Maya’s tone by saying it captures the memories completely and artfully to tell the story of a young women suffering from displacement. The scholars have also noticed Maya’s tone as a way to help the reader understand the time period. Maya’s tone shows how serious religion and activities were taken. She recalls a time in church when her and her brother tried not to laugh. Her diction proved she knew the consequences for her wrong actions. However, her tone makes the reader realize that she couldn’t stop laughing and would undergo the rough consequences. Maya’s tone also reveals the time period when she explained her need to be by herself at the neighborhood picnic. She explained the areas in details saying the men, women, and children had different areas to use the restroom. Her tone as she found a space alone was sad and discouraged due to her displacement with the other members of the picnic. Scholars have noted the importance of Maya’s tone in her novel to display the theme of displacement. 

Maya Angelou’s perception of the tone in her novel allows the reader to realize her loneliness as well as the similarities she has with her community. A major aspect of Maya’s tone was her muteness after the traumatic rape. A silence spoke louder then words. Her tone spoke to show her loniless and displacement from the society and family. Her family did not realize the affect the rape had on her soul, so Maya felt displaced from them. Maya says prior to going mute, “The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d die like the black fat slugs that only pretended; I had to stop talking” (Angelou 87). Maya uses her muteness as a tone to convey her displacement with the pureness of society. Maya also uses her tone to show her similarities with her community. Maya is seen as the voice of her community. She endures the pain that her community endures and occasionally worse. Angelou uses the tone in her autobiography to be a testimonial for her race. She testifies for the boys and girls like her. Maya uses diction about the heartaches and triumphs of the black community because that is what she knows. She grew up with the times of segregation and wants the story to be known. Her tone of heartaches in her community shows how they are displaced from the white community. Maya Angelou uses her tone to portray her feelings of displacement within her world as well as her community. 

Feeling displaced is an unwanted feeling and emotion. Maya Angelou grew up with displacement in her community and in her personal life. Scholars have used Maya’s novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to depict the importance of setting, characterization, and tone in the use of the theme of displacement. Maya makes the novel personal to her by using details in setting, characterization, and tone to depict the theme of displacement. Displacement is an emotion felt by many, but especially by May.



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