Maya Angelou as a Caged Bird

The graduation scene from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings illustrates how, living in the midst of racism and unequal access to opportunity, Maya Angelou was able to surmount the obstacles that stood in her way of intellectual develop and find "higher ground."  One of the largest factors responsible for Angelou's academic success was her dedication to and capacity for hard work, "My work alone has awarded me a top place...No absences, no tardinesses, and my academic work was among the best of the year" (Angelou  13-14).  Angelou worked hard and read a great deal in order to be able to perform on such a level, in spite of the fact that she had much less access (or none) to the quality of teachers, school environment and other resources available to whites because of her color.  

Another way Angelou surmounted the disadvantages of being black in a racist white controlled school district was to view her brother as a role model.  She is proud that she can recite the preamble to the Constitution faster than Bailey, she is proud he will see her graduate at the top of her class, and he provides her with literature which fuels her desire to read.  Maya also used other students in her class who were intelligent as role models and a measure stick of her own performance.  She admires the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, because he has been her most challenging academic competition among her peers.  However, another reason Angelou is able to overcome obstacles and reach higher ground is that she is not jealous or mean-spirited about academically competing with others.  Instead, she is happy that others are developing towards higher ground.  As she says about Henry, "I had admired him for years because each term he and I vied for the best grades in our class.  Most often he bested me, but instead of being disappointed I was pleased that we shared top places between us" (Angelou  14).  

Angelou also overcame the isolation, muffling of her voice and low self-esteem that can develop in a segregated environment by looking to those who had achieved higher ground before her, in books, in music, and in art.  She completely memorized The Rape of Lucrece, was well versed in Shakespeare, knew the life and times of Booker T. Washington, and was aware of the enduring power of black music.  Like Washington would advocate, through hard work, education, love of others and making herself indispensable by way of her accomplished development, Angelou was able to rise above the disadvantages of her environment repeatedly.  This is not to say that feelings of low self-esteem, anger, hostility, bitterness and rage were not all feelings and emotions engendered in her by the abusive environment that she would have to let go of before she could truly find herself-on higher ground.  She describes how awful it was to be black and be accused of things one could not even find opportunity to defend against.  She wishes all blacks were dead, she says black is one of the colors she hates, and she wishes she could choke Donleavy to death for his exploitative, ignorant racist ideology.  Yet, even when she is at her angriest, we see her wit and intelligence shine through that anger light a bright ray of hope, the same ray of light she will eventually use to find herself and reach higher ground.  Her mental mockery of Shakespeare's "To Be Or Not To Be" speech Henry gives is nearly as profound as the speech itself, "'To be or not to be.' Hadn't he heard the whitefolks?  We couldn't be, so the question was a waste of time.  Henry's voice came out clear and strong.  I feared to look at him.  Hadn't he got the message?  There was no 'nobler in the mind' for Negroes because the world didn't think we had minds, and they let us know it.  'Outrageous fortune'?  Now, that was really a joke.  When the ceremony was over I had to tell Henry Reed some things.  That is, if I still cared.  Not 'rub,' Henry, 'erase.'  'Ah, there's the erase.'  Us." (Angelou  19-20). 

However, Angelou has not found her voice, she still does not know why the caged bird sings.  The caged bird sings because it has the will to sing, the will to live.  It sings whether it is in an environment where it is free to soar and roam and explore, or it sings in a locked, confined and a cage defining its parameters.  Much as Angelou will come to discover the whites defining the "black" parameters is an obstacle that can be overcome by being proud to be her self and continue to work hard and endure with a voice that is proud, determined and loving.  Once Henry sings the poem about reaching the ground one's fathers (mothers, brothers, sisters, etc.) struggled to reach, Angelou has an epiphany that will allow her to find herself and come into possession of the one tool necessary not only to overcome the obstacles imposed by the white school board but the ones imposed by all racist whites or anyone else that stands in the way of her right to "sing" as who and what she is.  Angelou recognizes this quality because she knows about Booker T. Washington, she has explored literature, culture and art-i.e.., she has developed a soul, a soul that will accept no unjustly imposed boundaries.  She is now free to sing as she continues to act as a bridge in the here-and-now, built by the struggles of the past, forged for the struggles of those in the future, that others may also reach higher ground singing:  "We were on top again.  As always, again.  We survived.  The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls.  I was no longer simply a member of a proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race" (Angelou  21).  Angelou knows she would let down all those who have struggled and given her encouragement if she did not rise above the limitations of her own time and place. 


Angelou, M.  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  In Eastman, A. M.  The Norton Anthology of Expository Prose.  (3rd edit.)  W.W. Norton & Co., NY:  1973. 

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