Racial protest, identity, words and form in Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.'
There is difficulty in critically reading African American literature as apolitical text; all create a political impact whether this is the initial and conscious motive or not. Maya Angelou's autobiography is one such case. Though written in response to an aesthetic challenge - that an autobiography cannot be written as literature (from the Formalist/New Critics point of view) - Angelou's organic unity became a vehicle for her political protest. A critical reading shows how she was able to achieve this.

Article Type:
Critical essay
Biography (Criticism and interpretation)
African American women authors (Criticism and interpretation)
Walker, Pierre A.
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1995 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Oct, 1995 Source Volume: v22 Source Issue: n3
NamedWork: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Book)
Named Person: Angelou, Maya
Accession Number:
Full Text:
Maya Angelou has told in interviews how Robert Loomis, her eventual Random House editor, goaded her into writing autobiography, teasing her with the challenge of writing literary autobiography. Considering herself a poet and playwright, she had repeatedly refused Loomis's requests that she write an autobiography until he told her that it was just as well: "`He ... said that to write an autobiograph - as literature - is almost impossible. I said right then I'd do it'" ("Maya, Angelou," with Hitt 211). Angelou often admits that she cannot resist a challenge; however, it was not the challenge of writing autobiography per se that Angelou could not resist (and that led to the 1970 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but the challenge implied in Loomis's remark about the difficulty of writing autobiography "as literature."(1)

Angelou does not elaborate on how she distinguishes literary autobiography from any other kind of autobiography, and of course, for a poststructuralist, the challenge to write literary rather than "ordinary" autobiography is meaningless because there is no difference between the two (see Eagleton 201). For a formalist aesthetic, however, the distinctive qualities and characteristics of literary or poetic language as opposed to ordinary language are central operative concerns (see Brooks 729-31, Shklovsky 12, Fish 68-69). Cleanth Brooks's belief that "the parts of a poem are related to each other organically, and related to the total theme indirectly" (730) was a primary tenet of interpretation for American New Critics, ultimately related to their determination to distinguish literary from ordinary language. Poststructuratism in its most vehemently anti-formalist manifestations usually belittles Brooks's beliefs in organic unity and in the uniqueness of literary language, but criticisms of formalism, and of "literature" as a distinct and privileged category, so typical of much poststructuralist theorizing, become specially problematic in relation to African-American literature.

Many African-American texts were written to create a particular political impact. As a result, one can hardly ignore either the political conditions in which the slave narratives and Richard Wright's early works, for example, were composed or the political impact their authors (and editors and publishers, at least of the slave narratives) intended them to have. Even African-American texts that are not obviously part of a protest tradition are received in a political context, as is clear from the tendency in much critical commentary on Zora Neale Hurston to demonstrate an elusive element of protest in her novels.

So important is the political to the experience of African-American literature that it comes as no surprise that the increasing incorporation of the African-American literary tradition into mainstream academic literary studies since 1980 coincides exactly with the increasingly greater significance of the political in the prevailing critical paradigm: what better for a political literary criticism to address than an overtly political literature?

The problem is that African-American literature has, on more than one occasion, relied on confirming its status as literature to accomplish its political aims. Since slavery relied on a belief that those enslaved were not really human beings, slave narrators responded by writing books that emphasized the fact that they themselves were humans who deserved to be treated as such. Since emancipation, African-American authors have used the same strategy to fight the belief in racial hierarchies that relegated them to second-class citizen status. One way to do this was to produce "high art," which was supposed to be one of the achievements of the highest orders of human civilization. African-American poetry provides many examples of this strategy: Claude McKay's and Countee Cullen's reliance on traditional, European poetic forms and James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards." Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel," for instance, relies on recognizable English "literary" features: Shakespearean sonnet form, rhyme, meter, references to Greek mythology, and the posing of a theological question as old as the Book of job and as familiar as William Blake's "The Tyger."

Thus for a critical style to dismiss the closely related categories of form and of literature is to relegate to obscurity an important tradition of African-American literature and an important political tool of the struggle in the United States of Americans of African descent. This is clearly true in respect to Caged Bird, which displays the kind of literary unity that would please Brooks, but to the significant political end of demonstrating how to fight racism. Angelou wrote Caged Bird in the late 1960s, at the height of the New Criticism, and therefore in order for it to be the literary autobiography Loomis referred to, Angelou's book had to display features considered at the time typical of literature, such as organic unity. This is a political gesture, since in creating a text that satisfies contemporary criteria of "high art," Angelou underscores one of the book's central themes: how undeservedly its protagonist was relegated to second-class citizenship in her early years. To ignore form in discussing Angelou's book, therefore, would mean ignoring a critical dimension of its important political work.

Because scholarly discussions of Angelou's autobiographical works have only appeared in any significant number in the last fifteen years, Caged Bird and her other books have avoided - or, depending on one's view, been spared - the kind of formal analysis typically associated with New Criticism or Structuralism.(2) Scholarly critics of Caged Bird, often influenced by feminist and African-American studies, have focused on such issues as whether the story of Angelou's young protagonist is personal or universal, or on race, gender, identity, displacement, or a combination of these. In relation to these issues, they discuss important episodes like the scene with the "powhitetrash" girls, young Maya's rape and subsequent muteness, her experience with Mrs. Flowers, the graduation, the visit to the dentist, Maya's month living in a junkyard, or her struggle to become a San Francisco street-car conductor.(3) What they do not do is analyze these episodes as Angelou constructed them - often juxtaposing disparate incidents within an episode - and arranged and organized them, often undermining the chronology of her childhood story and juxtaposing the events of one chapter with the events of preceding and following ones so that they too comment on each other. The critics do not explore how Angelou, who has never denied the principle of selection in the writing of autobiography,(4) shaped the material of her childhood and adolescent life story in Caged Bird to present Maya's first sixteen years, much as a bildungsroman would, as a progressive process of affirming identity, learning about words, and resisting racism.(5) What scholars have focused on in Caged Bird does merit attention, but an attention to the formal strategies Angelou uses to emphasize what the book expresses about identity and race reveals a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression, a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest.

The progression from rage and indignation to subtle resistance to active protest gives Caged Bird a thematic unity that stands in contrast to the otherwise episodic quality of the narrative. To claim thematic unity is to argue that form and content work together, an assertion that is an anathema to much current literary theory. However, the formal in Caged Bird is the vehicle of the political, and not analyzing this text formally can limit one's appreciation of how it intervenes in the political. Critics should not focus on the political at the expense of the formal but instead should see the political and the formal as inextricably related. Indeed, some of the most well-received works on American literature in the last decade offer compelling demonstrations of such a symbiosis of form and content. Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs and Walter Benn Michaels' The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, for instance, are exemplary instances of new historicism or cultural criticism, but they nevertheless integrate virtuosic close formal analyses of literary texts into their overall projects.(6)

Caged Birds commentators have discussed how episodic the book is, but these episodes are crafted much like short stories, and their arrangement throughout the book does not always follow strict chronology.(7) Nothing requires an autobiography to be chronological, but an expectation of chronology on the reader's part is normal in a text that begins, as Caged Bird does, with earliest memories. Nevertheless, one of the most important early episodes in Caged Bird comes much earlier in the book than it actually did in Angelou's life: the scene where the "powhitetrash" girls taunt Maya's grandmother takes up the book's fifth chapter, but it occurred when Maya "was around ten years old" (23), two years after Mr. Freeman rapes her (which occurs in the twelfth chapter).

Situating the episode early in the book makes sense in the context of the previous chapters: the third chapter ends with Angelou describing her anger at the "used-to-be-sheriff" who warmed her family of an impending Klan ride (14-15), and the fourth chapter ends with her meditation on her early inability to perceive white people as human (20-21). The scene with the "powhitetrash" girls follows this (24-27), indicating how non-human white people can be. But if that was all that motivated the organization of her episodes, Angelou could as easily have followed the meditation on white people's non-humanity with the episode where young Maya breaks the china of her white employer, Mrs. Cullinan. What really organizes chapters three through five is that Angelou presents the futility of indignation and the utility of subtle resistance as ways of responding to racism. The scene with the ex-sheriff comes at the beginning of this sequence and only leaves Maya humiliated and angry:

If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff's act of kindness, I would k unable to say anything in his behalf. His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan's coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear. (14)

The scene with the "powhitetrash" girls causes Maya to react with the same helpless anger and humiliation, but through the response of her grandmother Henderson (whom she calls Momma) to the girls, rudeness and crudity, Maya learns there can be a better and more effective way to respond.

At first, Maya's reaction to the "powhitetrash" girls is like her reaction to the used-to-be sheriff: rage, indignation, humiliation, helplessness. When the girls ape her grandmother's posture, Maya weeps, thinks of getting her uncle's rifle, and wants to throw lye and pepper on them and to scream at them "that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods" (24-25). When they leave and Momma politely calls good-bye to them, Maya's rage peaks:

I burst. A firecracker July-the-Fourth burst. How could Momma call them Miz? The mean nasty things. Why couldn't she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them breasting the hill? What did she prove? And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz? (26)

But once the girls leave, young Maya realizes that her grandmother has achieved something@ Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand ... Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won" (26-27). Angelou claims that her ten-year-old self could not fully understand what had happened, though she did understand that there had been a contest of wills and that her grandmother had won it.

The young girl can be only vaguely conscious of how to comprehend the nature of the contest, but her next act and the organization of the whole chapter indicate nonetheless how readers should comprehend it. Angelou's description of the "powhitetrash" girls emphasizes their dirtiness. They are "grimy, snotty-nosed girls" (23), and "The dirt of [their] cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms and faces to make them all of a piece" (25). In contrast to this, Maya's household is a model of cleanliness. The first thing Momma tells Maya after the "powhitetrash" girls have left is to wash her face (26). This seems appropriate because of how much Maya had been crying, but its real significance is apparent when considered in the context of the chapter's beginning and of what Maya does at the end of the chapter. The chapter begins: "Thou shall not be dirty, and Thou shall not be impudent' were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation," and the two subsequent paragraphs recount the ends to which Momma went to ensure her grandchidren's cleanliness (21). At first glance, this would appear to have nothing to do with the pain and humiliation of racism. But what the entire chapter demonstrates and what the ten-year-old Maya vaguely understands is that cleanliness, racism, and her grandmother's "victory" over the "powhitetrash" girls have everything to do with each other. Maya would seem to have understood this - even though the adult Angelou claims she did not - for once she has washed her face, without being told to do so, she rakes the trampled front yard into a pattern that her grandmother calls "right pretty" (27).(8)

Maya and Momma demonstrate that, unlike the white trash girls, they are neither dirty nor impudent. This is where the victory lies. Part of it consists of Momma's resisting the white girls, attempts to goad her into descending to their level of impudence. But another part of the victory lies in maintaining personal dignity through the symbolic importance of cleanliness and politeness. The victory will not of itself bring about the downfall of segregation which is perhaps why some critics see Grandmother Henderson as ultimately helpless against racist oppression [see Kent 76, and Neubauer 118]), but it does allow Momma and Maya to be proud of themselves. By demonstrating their own cleanliness and politeness, Maya and her grandmother establish their family's respectability in the face of racism and subtly throw the attempt to degrade them back on their oppressor. Furthermore, there is a more effective strategy for reacting to racism and segregation than rage and indignation, a strategy of subtle resistance, what Dolly McPherson calls "the dignified course of silent endurance" (33). Later episodes demonstrate the limitations of subtle resistance, but one should not underestimate its powers: without risking harm to life, liberty, or property, Momma is able to preserve her human dignity in the face of the white girls' attempts to belittle her. It may be all that she can do in the segregated South at the time, but it is something. What is more, as Angelou subsequently shows, it serves as a basis from which Maya can later move to actively protesting and combating racism.

An important feature of the chapter is that Angelou organizes it like a short story. It begins where it ends, with cleanliness and raking the yard bracketing the scene with the white trash girls, and it leaves the reader to work out the relationship between the confrontation with the girls and the cleaning of the yard. Because of this organization, the chapter becomes more than just a narration of bigoted behavior and Momma's and Maya's responses to it: "Such experiences," says McPherson, are recorded not simply as historical events, but as symbolic revelations of Angelou's inner world" (49). The "powhitetrash" chapter takes on the additional dimension of a lesson in the utility of endowing everyday activities such as washing, raking a yard, or minding one's manners with symbolic value as a way of resisting bigotry. Making every minute of the day a symbolic means of fighting segregation in turn means that segregation is not a helpless and hopeless situation.

Angelou organizes the fifteenth chapter, the one about Mrs. Flowers, in a similarly tight fashion, interrelating the themes of racial pride, identity, and the power of words that run throughout. The positive effect that the attention of the elegant Mrs. Flowers has on the insecurity and identity crisis of young Maya is obvious.(9) By helping Maya to begin to have some self-confidence, Mrs. Flowers contributes to the young girl's affirmation of her identity: "I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected ... for just being Marguerite Johnson.... she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book" (85). Such respect and affection from an older person Maya admired surely had an important positive effect on a young girl suffering from the guilt and self-loathing that resulted from being raped by her mother's boyfriend. It is no wonder Angelou feels that Mrs. Flowers "threw me my first life line" (77).

While the Mrs. Flowers chapter seems, at first glance, not to have much to do with the politics of racism, this important step in Maya's sense of identity has everything to do with race. Since she had been twice sent away by her parents to live with her grandmother, it is no surprise that Maya had an insecurity and identity problem. in the opening pages of the book, Maya suffered from a strong case of racial self-hatred, fantasizing that she was "really white," with "light-blue eyes" and "long and blond" hair (2). At that point, Maya entirely separates her sense of self from her sense of race, and this is part of her identity crisis, since she refuses to accept being who she is and hankers after a foreign identity that is a compound of received ideas of white feminine beauty. By the end of the book, the opposite is the case. When the white secretary of the San Francisco street-car company repeatedly frustrates her attempts for a job interview, Maya is at first tempted not to take it personally: "The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites ... I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer." But then Maya decides that the rebuffs, which have everything to do with her race, also have everything to do with her personally, and this is because her personal identity and her racial identity cannot be entirely separated: "The whole charade we had played out in that crummy waiting room had directly to do with me, Black, and her, white" (227). Attaining the street-car conductor's job becomes not only a victory for civil rights, as a result, but also a personal victory for Maya's sense of self. One of the crucial transition points in this evolution over the course of the entire book from the total separation of self-image and race to the connection of the two comes in the Mrs. Flowers chapter, for not only does Mrs. Flowers make Maya feel liked and respected, but "she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself" (79).(10) This is the first statement of black racial pride in the book, but others appear later: Joe Louis's victory, which "proved that we were the strongest people in the world" (115), and Maya's conclusion at the end of the graduation scene that "I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race" (156).

The Mrs. Flowers chapter emphasizes black racial pride by combining two apparently disparate episodes on the basis of their thematic affinity, much as the "powhitetrash" chapter did. Here the affinity is not cleanliness but the power of words, a theme central to African-American autobiography, from the slave narratives to Richard Wright's Black Boy and beyond. The importance of the power of words, in themselves and in poetry, and by implication, the importance of literature run throughout Caged Bird, (11) especially after the rape, when Maya fears that her lie at Mr. Freeman's trial caused his death. Black Boy demonstrates the negative power of words each time Wright is abused for-not saying the right thing,(12) yet the book concludes on a positive note when Wright realizes that he can harness the power of words to his own artistic and political ends. Much the same thing happens in Caged Bird. Maya refuses to speak because she fears the potentially fatal power of words, but throughout the second half of the book she acknowledges that the imagination can harness the power of words to great ends. One of the high points in this realization comes at the end of the graduation scene, when the audience, having been insulted by a white guest speaker, lifts its morale by singing James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (155). Maya realizes that she had never heard it before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them." and this leads her to appreciate the African-American poetic tradition as she never had before (and Angelou expresses that appreciation with an allusion to another Johnson poem): "Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?" (156). Because Johnson's words, like Angelou's story, are gathered "from the stuff of the black experience, with its suffering and its survival", to use Keneth Kinnamon's words, the singing of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" at the end of the graduation episode "is a paradigm of Angelou's own artistic endeavor in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (132-33).

Mrs. Flowers lays the groundwork for this later appreciation of the power of the poetic word by explicitly stating the lesson of the positive power of words in her conversation with the ten-year-old Maya (her message is further emphasized because the main point of her invitation and attention to the mute girl is to convince her to use words again). "[B]ear in mind," Mrs. Flowers tells Maya, "language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone that separates him from the lower animals. ... Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning" (82). Mrs. Flowers's speech and her reading from Dickens themselves make Maya appreciate poetry - "I heard poetry for the first time in my life" (84), she says about Mrs. Flowers's reading - and the spoken word, but Angelou arranges the entire chapter to emphasize the power of words. The chapter begins with a description of Mrs. Flowers and her elegant command of standard English, which contrasts in their conversations with Momma's heavy dialect, much to Maya's shame: "Shame made me want to hide my face.... Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, `How are you, Mrs. Flowers?'... `Brother and Sister Wilcox is sho'ly the meanest - ' `Is,' Momma? `Is'? Oh, please, not `is,' Momma, for two or more" (78-79), As a result, Angelou has focused the chapter on the importance of words and their pronunciation, even in its very first pages, before Maya enters Mrs. Flowers's house.

The chapter's end, after Maya returns from her visit, also emphasizes the importance of words, this time in contrast to the way white people use words. When Maya tells her brother, "By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookie - ," Momma threatens to beat her granddaughter (85). The crime is that since "Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light," saying "by the way" was, in Momma's view, blasphemous (86). This episode would seem thematically unrelated to the rest of the chapter and only an example of Momma's domestic theocracy were it not for the chapter's final sentence: "When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: "Whitefolks use" by the way" to mean while we're on the subject,' Momma reminded us that `whitefolks' mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ'" (86-87). While the "by the way" episode concludes the chapter, Black Boy fashion, with an example of the awful power of words, this final sentence concludes both the episode and chapter just as the emphasis on cleanliness concluded the "powhitetrash" chapter: through their greater attention to details, the Henderson/Johnson clan shows itself to be superior to whites, and instead of showing Momma to be abusive and tyrannic, the "by the way" episode anticipates the affirmation later in the book of the strength blacks find in the careful - even poetic - use of words, just as Mrs. Flowers does in her reading and in her speech about words.

The internal organization of chapters, as in the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Flowers chapters, into thematic units that would make Cleanth Brooks proud is but one of the effects Angelou uses in Caged Bird. Equally effective is the way Angelou juxtaposes chapters. For example, she follows the Mrs. Flowers chapter, with its lessons on the power of words and on identity, with the chapter (the sixteenth) where Maya breaks Mrs. Cullinan's dishes because the white employer neglects to take a single but important word - Maya's name - and Maya's identity seriously. This chapter comments, then, on the previous one by showing Maya acting on the basis of what she has learned in the previous chapter about the importance of words and about affirming identity. Maya's smashing of the dishes is also an important stage in the progression of strategies for responding to racial oppression from helpless indignation, to subtle resistance, to active protest. No longer helplessly angered and humiliated, as she was by the former sheriff and the white girls taunting her grandmother, Maya shows in the Mrs. Cullinan chapter that she has internalized the lesson of the "powhitetrash" episode and can figure out, with her brother's advice, a way to resist her white employer's demeaning of her that is subtle and yet allows her to feel herself the victor of an unspoken confrontation. After Mrs., Cullinan insists on calling her Mary instead of Margaret (which best approximates her real name, Marguerite), Maya realizes that she can neither correct her employer nor simply quit the job. Like her grandmother with the rude white girls, Maya cannot openly confront her oppressor, nor can she allow the situation to continue. Instead she breaks Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dishes and walks out, exulting as Mrs. Cullinan tells her guests, Her name's Margaret, goddamn it, her name's Margaret!" (93).(13)

Angelou follows this chapter with a series of three chapters, the seventeenth through the nineteenth, each of which depicts subtle black resistance to white oppression. However, while the sixteenth chapter ends with Maya exulting at the efficacy of her resistance of Mrs. Cullinan, these chapters increasingly express the limitations of subtle resistance. The seventeenth chapter tells of Maya's and Bailey's viewing movies starring Kay Francis, who resembles their mother, and describes how Maya turns the stereotypical depiction of black people in Hollywood movies back onto the unknowing white members of the audience. As the whites snicker at the Stepin Fetchitlike black chauffeur in one Kay Francis comedy, Maya turns the joke on them:

I laughed too, but not at the hateful jokes.... I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a big mansion with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother. And it was funny to think of the whitefolks' not knowing that the woman they were adoring could be my mother's twin, except that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier. (99-100)

This passage works very much like Momma's victory over the white trash girls: the whites' taunts are turned back on them, though the whites may not know it. Nonetheless, this permits the black person to feel superior instead of humiliated while avoiding the kind of open confrontation that could lead to violence. What is problematic about the seventeenth chapter is that, as in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, the end of the chapter casts a shadow on the success achieved in the moment of subtle resistance by describing Bailey's very different reaction to the movie: it makes him sullen, and on their way home, he terrifies Maya by running in front of an oncoming train (100).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, which tell of the revival meeting and the Joe Louis fight, a black community is able to feel superior to whites. Both chapters, though, end ambiguously, with a reminder that the feeling of superiority is transitory and fragile. At the revival, the congregation thrills to a sermon that subtly accuses whites of lacking charity while reminding the congregation of the ultimate reward for their true charity. The congregation leaves the revival feeling, "It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell" (110-11). Again, the oppressed are able to feel superior without risking the violence of an open confrontation. The final two paragraphs of the chapter, however, compare the gospel music at the revival with the "ragged sound" of the "barrelhouse blues" coming from the honky-tonk run by "Miss Grace, the good-time woman" (111). Like the parishioners at the revival, the customers of the suitably named Miss Grace "had forsaken their own distress for a little while." However,

Reality began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning. After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver's seat. How long, merciful Father? How long? ... All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long? (111)

Whereas the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Cullinan chapters ended on a note of victory, this chapter ends on one that rings more of defeat. This is because the book moves through the three strategies for responding to white racist oppression - helpless indignation, subtle resistance, and active protest - and at this point is preparing the transition from the limited victories of subtle resistance to the outright victory of active protest.

The next chapter, the nineteenth, which describes the community at the store listening to a Joe Louis match, follows the same pattern as the revival chapter. Louis's victory provides his fans a stirring moment of racial pride and exaltation: "Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother's son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas" (114). But while Louis's victory allows his black fans to feel themselves stronger and superior to their white oppressors, there are limits to how far the black community can rejoice in its superiority. The chapter ends by mentioning that those who lived far out of town spent the night with friends in town because, "It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world" (115).

Because chapters eighteen and nineteen explore the limits to subtle, but passive, resistance, the book has to go on to present other possible ways of responding to white oppression. The climactic response, one that consists of active resistance and outright protest, is Maya's persisting and breaking the color line of the San Francisco street-car company, described in the thirty-fourth chapter. Since Caged Bird was written in the late sixties, at the height of the black power movement, and at a time that was still debating the value of Martin Luther King's belief in non-violent protest, it is no surprise that this act of protest is the climactic moment of resistance to white oppression in the book, a moment that says: Momma's type of resistance was fine in its time and place, but now it is time for some real action.(14) There are at least three other episodes in the second half of Caged Bird, however, which explore the line between subtle but passive resistance and active, open protest: the graduation scene (chapter twenty-three), the dentist scene (chapter twenty-four), and the story Daddy Clidell's friend, Red Leg, tells of double-crossing a white con man (chapter twenty-nine).

Falling as they do between the Joe Louis chapter and the San Francisco street-car company chapter, these three episodes chart the transition from subtle resistance to active protest. The graduation scene for the most part follows the early, entirely positive examples of subtle resistance in Caged Bird. The only difference is that the resistance is no longer so subtle and that it specifically takes the form of poetry, which in itself valorizes the African-American literary tradition as a source for resisting white racist oppression. Otherwise, the graduation chapter conforms to the pattern established by the "powhitetrash" and Mrs. Cullinan chapters: first, there is the insult by the white person, when the speaker tells the black audience of all the improvements which the white school will receive-improvements that far surpass the few scheduled for the black school (151). There is Maya's first response of humiliation and anger: "Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds" (152), shared now by the community: "[T]he proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads" (152). Then there is the action on the part of a member of the black community - Henry Reed's improvised leading the audience in "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (155) - that at the same time avoids an irreversible confrontation with the white oppressor and permits the black community to feel its dignity and superiority: "We were on top again. As always, again. We survived" (156).

The primary difference in the graduation chapter is that because the audience sings together, the resistance is a community action. The resistance is still not exactly an outright protest and it still avoids open confrontation, since the white insulter has left and does not hear the singing. Otherwise, the scene resembles a civil rights protest two decades later. The graduation also serves as an introduction for the dentist chapter, which is similar to the graduation chapter because of the way it highlights literature as a possible source for resisting racist oppression, and which is the crucial transitional chapter from subtle resistance to active protest because it opens the door to the eventuality of open confrontation by presenting the closest instance in the book of a black person in Stamps openly confronting a racist white.

The insult in the dentist chapter occurs when Stamps's white and only dentist - to whom Maya's grandmother had lent money, interest-free and as a favor-refuses to treat Maya's excruciating toothache, telling Maya and Momma, "[M]y policy is I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's" (160). From this point on, though, the chapter ceases to follow the pattern of the previous examples of resistance. Instead, Momma leaves Maya in the alley behind the dentist's office, and in a passage printed in italics, enters the office transformed into a superwoman, and threatens to run the now-trembling dentist out of town. Readers quickly perceive that this passage is italicized because it is Maya's fantasy, but they do have to read a few sentences of the fantasy before realizing it. The chapter ends, after Maya and Momma travel to the black dentist in Texarkana, with Angelou's explanation of what really happened inside the white dentist's office - Momma collected interest on her loan to the dentist, which pays the bus fare to Texarkana - and Angelou's remark: "I preferred, much preferred, my version" (164).

The fantasy scene bears attention because it is the only one like it in Caged Bird. It is the only italicized passage in the book and the only one that confuses the reader - even if only for a moment - over what is real and what is fantasy. Some critics have argued that this passage serves the purpose of underlining how limited Momma's ability to fight racism is,(15) and it is true that in a better world, Momma would have been able to exact proper and courteous care from a dentist who was beholden to her. This reading, however, does not account for either the uniqueness of the presentation of the passage or the very real pride Maya feels for her grandmother as they ride the bus between Stamps and Texarkana: "I was so proud of being her granddaughter and sure that some of her magic must have come down to me" (162-163). On the one hand, the italicized passage does highlight the contrast between what Maya wishes her grandmother could do to a racist with what little she can do, thus again demonstrating the limitations of subtle resistance as an overall strategy for responding to racist oppression. On the other hand, the fantasy passage anticipates the kind of outright confrontations between oppressed black and racist oppressor that occurred when Maya broke the street-car company's color line and in the civil rights movement. Although it is only a fantasy, it is the first instance in Caged Bird of a black person openly confronting a racist white, and thus is the first hint that such confrontation is a possibility,

The fact that the fantasy passage is an act of imagination is also significant, since it hints that imagination and storytelling can be forms of resisting racism. It is natural to read the fantasy passage in this way because of its placement immediately after the apostrophe to Black known and unknown poets" at the end of the graduation chapter (156). Because of this passage praising black poets, we are all the more inclined to see the imagined, italicized, fantasy passage five pages later as itself an instance of poetry. For one, the apostrophe includes in the category of "poets" anyone who uses the power of the word -" include preachers, musicians and blues singers" Thus, anyone who uses language to describe pain and suffering and their causes (i. e., blues singers) belongs in the category of poets. According to this definition, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a blues singer, and therefore a poet, too, since telling why the caged bird sings is an instance of describing pain and suffering and their causes, an instance of the blues. Loosely defined, poetry is also an act of imagination, and thus the italicized fantasy passage in the dentist chapter is poetic, since it is an act of imagination. in fact, it is the first instance of Maya being a poet, and thus the first step towards the far more monumental act of writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings itself. Poetry, in all its forms, can be an act of resistance. The graduation chapter has already made that clear, but the dentist chapter makes it clear that the victim of racial oppression can herself become a poet and use her poetry as a form of resistance. Maya had begun to learn the positive power of poetry and of words in the Mrs. Flowers chapter. Now she begins the process of harnessing the power of words to positive effect, a process that concludes with the composition almost thirty years later of the very book in hand.

The final instance of not-quite-outright resistance is the scam Red Leg tells kin chapter twenty-ninej of pulling on a white con man. This episode is not the open, active protest of Maya's integration of the street-cars, since it does not involve a direct confrontation with the white racist, but it is closer to it than any of the previous examples of resistance because the white person ends up knowing that he has been had at his own game. The inclusion of the episode is at first glance irrelevant to the heroine's personal development, but Angelou's comments at the end of the chapter make clear how the passage fits with the rest of the book. For one, Angelou remarks that, "It wasn't possible for me to regard Fred Leg and his accomplice] as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements" (190). The reason for her pride is that these black con artists are achieving revenge for wrongs incurred against the entire race: "`We are the victims of the world's most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It's all right if we do a little robbing now", (190-91). The scam is, therefore, another example of fighting back against white domination and racist oppression, an example that, like the others, meets with the author's approval.

The scam artist chapter ends, like so many other chapters, with a paragraph that appears to have little to do with what precedes. It tells of how Maya and her black schoolmates learned to use Standard English and dialect in their appropriate settings. This short paragraph certainly belongs to the commentary running throughout the book on appreciating the significance and power of words: "We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial" (191). It also serves to emphasize the superior ability of blacks to adapt to and get the best of circumstances and situations: "My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. in the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s's from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs" (191). Angelou shows here the superior adaptability of her black schoolmates (and that Maya has come a long way from her scorn of her grandmother's use of dialect): the blacks learn all the whites do and more. This lesson is entirely appropriate to the con artist chapter, since what the stories about pulling scams demonstrate is the black version of heroism, which is to make the most of what little one has - in other words, adaptability: [I]n the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast" (190).

Within strictly legal confines, such an ability is the essence of the American myth of success, and undoubtedly, at least part of the appeal of Caged Bird is that it corresponds both to this definition of black heroism and to the outline of a typical success story.(16) The product of a broken family, raped at age eight, Angelou was offered at first "only the crumbs" from her "country's table." She suffers from an inferiority complex, an identity crisis, and the humiliation of racist insults. By the end of the book, however, she 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, and she knows - and demonstrates in addition through the very existence of the book itself - that she can respond by using the power of words. It may be impossible to convince a poststructuralist that there is something uniquely literary about Angelou's autobiography, but certainly part of what this autobiography is about is the power and utility of literature and its own genesis and existence as a protest against racism. One serves Angelou and Caged Bird better by emphasizing how form and political content work together. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says in respect to the general tradition of autobiographies by African-American women:

The theoretical challenge lies in bringing sophisticated skills to the service of a politically informed reading of texts. To read well, to read fully, is inescapably to read politically, but to foreground the politics, as if these could somehow be distinguished from the reading itself, is to render the reading suspect. (67)

To neglect many of the formal ways Caged Bird expresses its points about identity, words, and race is to ignore the extent to which Angelou successfully met Loomis's challenge, an important aspect of her artistic accomplishment, and the potential utility of this text in literary classrooms, especially those that emphasize combining formal and ideologically-based approaches to analyzing literature.


(1) Angelou tells the story of how she came to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in several interviews collected by Jeffrey M. Elliot (80, 151-52, 211). She admits having an inability to "resist a challenge" ("Westways" 80) in her 1983 interview with Claudia Tate ("Maya Angelou" 151-52), and in at least two interviews, she discusses James Baldwin's possible role in helping Loomis use her attraction to a challenge as a ploy to get her to agree to write an autobiography ("Westways" 80, "Maya Angelou", with Tate 151). (2) A search in the MLA computerized data bank reveals forty-four items on Angelou, with the oldest dating back to 1973, three years after the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Twenty-eight of these forty-four items have appeared since 1985, and only nine appeared before 1980 (and of these, two are interviews, one is bibliographic information, and one is a portion of a dissertation). There are different possibilities for interpreting these facts: on the one hand, it may be that scholarly critics have been slow to catch up, to Angelou, slow to treat her work - and thus to recognize it - as literature worthy of their attention; on the other hand, it may be that the scholarly status of Angelou's work has risen in concert with poststructuralism's rise and has done so because poststructuralism has made it possible to appreciate Angelou's work in new ways. (3) For the significance of identity in Caged Bird, see Butterfield (203), Schmidt (25-27), McPherson (16, 18, 121), and Arensberg (275, 278-80, 288-90). On displacement, see Neubauer (117-19, 126-27) and Bloom (296-97). For a consideration of the personal vs. the universal, see McPherson (45-46), Cudjoe (10), O'Neale (26), McMurry (109), and Kinnamon, who stresses the importance of community in Caged Bird (123-33). On the "powhitetrash" scene, see Butterfield (210-12), McPherson (31-33), and McMurry (108). For an extensive consideration of the rape, see Froula (634-36). For the effect of the rape on Maya and her relationship with Mrs. Flowers, see Lionnet (147-52). For the graduation, see Butterfield (207), McMurry (109-10), Arensberg (283), and Cudjoe (14). For the visit to the dentist, see Braxton (302-04) and Neubauer (118-19). For the month in the junkyard, see Gilbert (41) and Lionnet (156-57). (4) See Angelou's interviews with Tate ("Maya Angelou" 152) and with Neubauer ("Interview" 288-89). In an interview included in McPherson's Order Out of Chaos, Angelou mentions a number of incidents she omitted - some consciously, some unconsciously - from Caged Bird (138-40, 145-47, 157-58). O'Neale, who writes that Angelou's "narrative was held together by controlled techniques of artistic fiction" (26) and that her books are "arranged in loosely structured plot sequences which are skillfully controlled" (32), does not discuss these techniques or arrangements in any detail. (5) Angelou creates enough potential confusion about her protagonist's identity by having her called different names by different people - Ritie, Maya, Marguerite, Margaret, Mary, Sister. For the sake of consistency, I use the name "Maya" to refer to the protagonist of Caged Bird and the name "Angelou" to refer to its author. (6) Michaels's book is published in Stephen Greenblatt's series, "The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics," and Tompkins' book, whose subtitle is The Cultural Work of Arnerican Fiction, 1790-1860, emphasizes reading literature in its historical context. Tompkins' chapter, "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," and Michaels' chapter on McTeague strike me as brilliant close literary analysis. (7) Schmidt (25) and McPherson (26) comment on the episodic quality of Caged Bird. Schmidt is the one commentator on Caged Bird to mention that "each reminiscence forms a unit" (25). An indication of how episodic Caged Bird is is how readily selections from it have lent themselves to being anthologized. (8) McMurry argues insightfully that Maya "is using the design [she rakes in the front yard] to organize feelings she could not otherwise order or express, just as Momma has used the song to organize her thoughts and feelings beyond the range of the children's taunts. She triumphs not only in spite of her restrictions, but because of them. It is because, as a Black woman, she must maintain the role of respect toward the white children that she discovers another vehicle for the true emotions" (108). Kinnamon, arguing that "Angelou's purpose is to portray cleanliness as a bonding ritual in black culture" (127), contrasts the importance of washing in the "powhitetrash" chapter with the scene in Black Boy where Richard Wright tells of his grandmother's washing him. (9) See Bloom, who points to Mrs. Flowers as "a perceptive mother-substitute" (293). Sexual identity is central to the book's last two chapters, in which Angelou tells of Maya's concerns about her sexual identity and the birth of her son. For discussions of these last two chapters, see Smith (373-74), Buss (103-04), Schmidt (26-27), McPherson (53-55), Arensberg (290-91), Butterfield (213), Lionnet (135-36), Demetrakopoulos (198-99), and MacKethan (60). (10) By being herself, Mrs. Flowers made Maya proud of her racial background, "proud to be Negro," but the real lesson Maya needs to learn is double: by being herself, Maya herself can be "proud to be Negro" and by being "proud to be Negro," Maya can be herself. Thus the language of the phrase implies the link between being "proud to be Negro" and being oneself. (11) See MacKethan, who emphasizes "verbal humor as a survival strategy" in Caged Bird. Cudjoe, arguing that "speech and language became instruments of liberation in Afro-American thought," reads Caged Bird in the context of this important theme (10-11). (12) Examples of this abuse occur when Wright tells his grandmother to kiss his ass, when he nonchalantly answers his uncle's question about the time of day, or when a drunken white man bashes him in the face for forgetting to say "sir" (40-44, 149-53, 173-74). (13) Thanks to my colleague, Mark Richardson, for pointing out that in Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin the sailors rebelled against their officers by smashing dishes and for implying that dish smashing as an act of rebellion may be a literary trope. (14) Angelou has spoken in at least two interviews of the importance of protest in her work ("Zelo Interviews Maya Angelou, 167; "The Maya Character" 198). (15) See, for example, Neubauer (118). Mary Jane Lupton also feels that in the dentist episode "the grandmother has been defeated and humiliated, her only reward a mere ten dollars in interest for a loan she had made to the dentist" (261). (16) On May 29, 1994, twenty-four years after Caged Bird's initial publication, the paperback edition was in its sixty-seventh week on the New York Times Book Review, list of paperback best sellers.


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