Ever since the publishing of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, literary critics never ceased pointing out to the fact that novel’s themes and motifs are being concerned with the process of a main character striving to attain the sense of self-identity. Nevertheless, this did not prevent them from discussing the qualitative essence of this process from a variety of different perspectives.
For example, in her article Arensberg (1976) refers to the subtleties of how Maya went about attaining existential identity as such that have been in the state of constant transition: “The unsettled life Angelou writes of in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings suggests a sense of self as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications” (277). In its turn, this implies that Maya’s perception of herself never ceased being the subject of continuous transformation.
On the other hand, while suggesting that Maya did succeed with gaining solid sense existential self-awareness, Walker (1995) refers to it as something that came to being as the result of novel main character’s spatially defined intellectual evolvement: “By the end of the book… she [Maya] no longer feels inferior, knows who she is, and knows that she can respond to racism in ways that preserve her dignity and her life, liberty, and property” (103).
In this paper, I will aim to confirm the soundness of namely Walker’s suggestion, while pointing out to the fact that, by the end of Angelou’s novel, Maya did not only become fully self-aware individual, but that such her self-awareness came as the result of novel’s main character having learned how to accept her inborn affiliation with the Black race.
As novel’s context implies, throughout the early phases of her life, Maya has been experiencing a number of psychological anxieties, due to the sheer extent of her physical unattractiveness. Moreover, there were clearly defined racial undertones to Maya’s emotional uncomfortableness with who she was: “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?” (2).
And yet, as novel’s plot unraveled, Maya was gradually freeing herself of these anxieties. I believe that the following three events, described in the novel, contributed rather substantially towards helping Maya to learn how to take pride in her blackness.
a) In Chapter 10, Angelou refers to the conversation that took place between Maya and uncle Tommy. While sensing that the young girl lacked self-confidence, uncle Tommy did his best to assure her that good looks is not something that solely defines one’s chances to attain social prominence: “Ritie, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty. Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse. You smart. I swear to God, I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind” (68). It is needless to mention, of course, that such uncle Tommy’s remark did help Maya to accept who she was. After all, prior to having socialized with uncle Tommy, Maya used to suffer a great deal, on the account of her ugliness.
And, as the context of further chapters implies, uncle Tommy’s words did have an effect on Maya, as she was becoming progressively less disturbed with her physical appearance. In the article, from which we have already quoted, Arensberg states: “Shuttled between temporary homes and transient allegiances, Maya necessarily develops a stoic flexibility that becomes not only her ‘shield,’ but, more importantly, her characteristic means of dealing with the world” (274).
Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration, to suggest that Maya’s socialization with uncle Tommy represents a crucial point in the process of novel’s main character being set on the path of self-actualization through acceptance.
b) In Chapter 15, readers get to meet Mrs. Flowers, whose influence on Maya never ceased being utterly beneficial, it is was namely due to being exposed to the sheer extent of this character’s sophistication that Maya was slowly learning how to take pride in her racial affiliation: “She [Mrs. Flowers] appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally.
Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance… It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself” (95).
It was specifically after having met Mrs. Flowers that Maya acquired taste for learning, as this intellectually sophisticate Black woman never ceased encouraging Maya to read: “She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud” (98).
After having been prompted to indulge in reading by Mrs. Flowers, Maya started to realize that her blackness was not something to be ashamed of. In its turn, this facilitated the process of novel’s main character learning how to accept her racially defined sense of self-identity even further.
c) Chapter 16, contains description of another event, the exposure to which had increased the strength of Maya’s resolution to accept her racial self-identity – namely, the conversation between Miss Glory and Mrs. Cullinan, during the course of which Mrs. Cullinan refused referring to Maya by her real name Marguerite and instead, suggested that the name Mary suits Maya so much better: “Well, that may be, but the name’s [Margarete] too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you” (107).
And, as it appears from what happened to be Maya’s emotional reaction to Mrs. Cullinan’s suggestion, she thought of it as being utterly insulting: “I fumed into the kitchen. That horrible woman would never have the chance to call me Mary because if I was starving I’d never work for her” (107). By expressing her contempt with Mrs. Cullinan’s subtly defined racism, sublimated in White woman’s willingness to degrade Blacks linguistically, Maya had once again confirmed the fact that she was firmly set on the path of racial self-acceptance.
Apparently, Maya was able to recognize the name Mary as being connotative of ‘whiteness’, which is exactly the reason why she refused to be called by this name – after having accepted her blackness as the integral part of her self-identity, Maya could never bring herself back to trying to be just like Whites.
I think that the earlier mentioned events do provide readers with the insight on what accounted for the actual subtleties of Maya’s journey towards self-acceptance.
Given the fact that Angelou describes this journey as rather linearly defined, it substantiates the validity of paper’s initial thesis – while being continuously exposed to a number of life’s challenges, Maya was slowly learning that her self-identity could not be discussed outside of what happened to be the particulars of her racial affiliation. And, it is specifically after novel’s main character had accepted this fact cognitively, that she was able to attain emotional comfortableness with her newly acquired sense of individuality.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1997 .
Arensberg, Liliane “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” CLA Journal 20.2 (1976): 273-91.
Walker, Pierre “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22.3 (1995): 91-109.