The Theme of Racism in Maya Angelou’s Novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In this essay I will be talking about how the theme of Racism is developed throughout Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings novel. Angelou on the second page states, “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must have been a Chinaman”…” (Angelou 2).

Angelou says this as a child wishing to not be who she is because of how other children mock her and she does not think she is pretty enough. At the early age of three years old, Angelou begins to realize that there is a major difference in the Southern black community. “In cotton-picking time the late afternoons revealed the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature’s blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight.” (Angelou 9).

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As a child growing up in the Deep South like she did, Angelou was affected by segregation and racism not just on herself, but by seeing it happen to the others around her also. “The used-to-be sheriff sat rakishly astraddle his horse….His twang jogged in the brittle air. From the side of the Store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma,” 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.”…

We were told to take the potatoes and onions out of their bins and knock out the dividing walls that kept them apart. Then with a tedious and fearful slowness Uncle Willie gave me his rubber-tipped cane and bent down to get into the now-enlarged empty bin. It took forever before he lay down flat, and then we covered him with potatoes and onions, layer upon layer, like a casserole.” (Angelou 17, 18).

Because Angelou watched her Uncle go through this with the KKK, I feel like that was something that majorly affected how she viewed white people as she grew up. She saw them as bad people who go around looking and hurting blacks for no reason. She was so young she had distorted views of what was happening around her and why they were happening. Angelou continued to grow up in the South going to church with her grandmother, whom she called her Momma, and her Uncle and her brother Bailey.

When Angelou and Bailey got around the age of seven and eight, their dad came into the picture and took them up to their mother. Bailey grew extremely attached to his mother and Angelou was kind of distant because she felt like physically she did not belong in her family. “He turned to Bailey and I looked at the side of his face; he was so unreal to me I felt as if I were watching a doll talk. … To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.” (Angelou 58, 59).

Angelou learns while she is in St. Louis with her mother that all white people don’t feel the same way that most do about black people do. The way she learns this is because her, “Grandmother Baxter was a quadroon or an octoroon, or in any case she was nearly white.” (Angelou 61).

Maya’s grandmother was nearly white and did not discriminate against her, who I think helped open her eyes a little to not everyone is the same. Angelou goes through rough patches in her life and goes back to her Momma for a while. While she is with her Momma again, she again goes through things that make her thing worse of the white man.

Bailey one day did not come home on time and the reason was because he had to help a white man pull a murdered black man out of a pond. This made both Angelou and Bailey question what their race had done so wrong to the world that they were just blindly being murdered. ““..Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?” Uncle Willie muttered, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.”” (Angelou 197).

After again questioning themselves on if they had done anything wrong and having to wonder why, Momma decided to move the children to California where their Mother now lived. When they got to California it seemed like a different world. There was segregation but it was not nearly as bad as before. Angelou grows and starts a public high school with whites and blacks. Some of her teachers would acknowledge that she was there, while others would deliberately ignore her. This was a step up from before, but she still had to deal with it everywhere she went.

The biggest step that made Angelou realize that not all whites feel the same about blacks is when she ran away from her father’s home and lived in a junkyard for a month to get away. Angelou had decided to sleep in a car for a night and she awoke to quite the surprise. “I had slid down the seat and slept the night in an ungainly position. Wrestling with my body to assume an upward arrangement, I saw a collage of Negro, Mexican and white races outside the windows… After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself. The unquestioning acceptance by my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity. Odd that the homeless children, the silt of war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man.” (Angelou 252,254). These events lead more to the acceptance of whites and when she had to face them later while trying to obtain a job, she didn’t feel the same hatred that the whites did towards her.

Angelou throughout her novel develops how her view of herself as an African-American is not a necessarily a bad thing and that not all people of a different race mean harm to them. As she lived in the junkyard I think that is the main factor that causes her not to hate herself and her race as much as she did in the very beginning of the book.



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