Abandonment in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel opens with three-year-old Maya and her four-year-old bother Bailey traveling alone across the United States wearing wrist tags that read “To Whom It May Concern.” The siblings are being sent away from their newly divorced parents to live with their paternal grandmother, and Maya reacts by pretending her parents are dead. “I couldn’t believe that our mother would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children,” she explains. When, one year, the siblings suddenly receive Christmas presents from their parents, it is a painful reminder that they have chosen a life without their children, rather than a cause for joy; and in a manner typical of children, Maya feels guilty and wonders what she has done wrong. The initial act of abandonment committed by her parents affects Maya’s sense of belonging and results in her not feeling at home anywhere. While living with her grandmother, she does not mind being taken for her uncle Willie’s child, since she does not “feel any loyalty” to her father and suspects she would have been better treated as Willie’s daughter, anyway. And when it is decided that the siblings are to live with their mother, after residing for a time with their maternal grandparents, Maya’s reaction shows how constant relocations give rise to feelings of detachment: “Moving from the house where the family was centered meant absolutely nothing to me. It was simply a small pattern in the grand design of our lives.
” Never knowing how long she is to stay in one particular house, Maya avoids creating strong bonds with anyone but her brother. Maya’s reflection that her mother “was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions” reveals her desire for parental care; and this need makes her especially vulnerable to the advances of Mr. Freeman, the man living with her mother. After a first incident of physical closeness with him, she is reassured by his embrace and convinced that he is her “real father”; and subsequently, Freeman takes advantage of this closeness and rapes Maya. Discovering what has happened to her daughter, Maya’s mother has her boyfriend killed; the traumatic incident and her feelings of guilt cause Maya to withdraw into complete silence. She refuses to speak to anyone but Bailey, and when she feels them growing apart, she retreats into the world of books, reflecting that “the long-lost children mistaken for waifs, became more real to me than our house, our mother, our school or Mr. Freeman.” A sense of loneliness, then, prevails in Maya’s life, and she is constantly aware of the possibility of abandonment. On a trip to New Mexico with her father, upon losing sight of him, she finds herself in a “fog of panic,” which, she says, “nearly suffocated me.” She becomes convinced that he has sold her to a man and left her; her anxiety is relieved only upon finding his car parked in the yard. Back at home, she has an argument with his girlfriend, which results in a wound on her arm, and her father therefore decides to leave her with friends.
Waking up in an empty house, Maya does not want to wait around for anyone, and, afraid to show her mother her arm, she spends a month on the street with a group of other abandoned children, who, she says, “set a tone of tolerance for my life.” Maya’s experience of abandonment makes her sensitive to the other children’s emotional limitations, and she is therefore not surprised that her friends are “undemonstrative” and receive the news with noticeable “detachment” when she decides to leave them. Although the theme of abandonment pervades the novel, the story concludes on a note of hope. As the story nears its end, Maya has just delivered her firstborn and is persuaded by her mother to let the baby sleep in her bed. Overcome by tiredness, she falls asleep, only to be awakened by her mother, who shows Maya that her baby lies fast asleep, touching her side in the secure space of her folded arm. The blanket covers him like a roof that completes the symbolic home Maya creates for her baby with her own body. In this way, convinced that Maya will not repeat the abandonment she herself suffered, readers are left confident of her little boy’s prospects of growing up with his mother. Eva Lupin Identity in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou’s autobiographical story depicts the childhood and adolescence of Marguerite, or Maya, a black girl growing up in a deeply racist society. The novel opens with words that well illustrate Maya’s existence and that also come to influence her state of mind: “What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay .” When she is three years old, Maya’s parents decide to get divorced, and as a result she and her four-year-old brother, Bailey, are sent on a bus crossing several states to their paternal grandmother in the South. The porter who has been paid to accompany them deserts the children after a day, and they are forced to take care of themselves.
This is the first time they are separated from their mother, but before the novel ends, the siblings have moved back and forth a couple of times. The instability of her existence makes Maya feel a lack of control, which is further emphasized by her being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she is only eight years old. Feeling guilty for having allowed the man to come near her, Maya does not dare to admit in court that he has touched her once before, and when she realizes that her mother (after finding out what has happened) has had her boyfriend killed, Maya is convinced that his death is the punishment for her lie. Her feelings of guilt become so unbearable that she withdraws into silence, refusing to speak to anyone but her brother. As a child, Maya fails to comprehend why the siblings are being moved around, and the adult Marguerite expresses her confusion: “There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine.” The experience makes her feel powerless, and the feeling of lacking control is emphasized by her race. On her graduation day, for example, Marguerite alternates between hope for her future and deep despair for the whole of her race, as well as for the lack of opportunity they are all facing. The ceremony in school, however, ends on a note of hope with the congregation singing the black national anthem. But the words that speak most clearly to Marguerite are those of a white man, Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Marguerite feels a strong sense of powerlessness and displacement at home, as well as in society for reasons of race, and Henry’s words become symbolic of the determination she forms as a result of her experiences. On a trip to Mexico with her father, Marguerite overcomes circumstances for the first time, and she revels in the feeling of accomplishment and control this gives her. Although she has never driven a car before, she finds herself in the middle of the night, her father lying drunk in the backseat, maneuvering his vehicle from a small village in Mexico to the American border. Driving on winding paths dangerously close to the mountain edge, she finds the experience “exhilarating” and recalls how “[i]t was me, Marguerite, against the elemental opposition.
I was controlling Mexico, and might and aloneness, and inexperienced youth and Bailey Johnson, Sr., and death and insecurity, and even gravity.” The experience empowers her to take charge in all parts of her life, and a few years later, after extreme perseverance, she becomes the first female Negro conductor on the San Francisco streetcars. Marguerite develops through the novel from a person unsure of her place—both in her family and in the greater society—to a person who is able to set goals for herself and fulfill them against all odds. Her first job is the result of an unrelenting insistence on her right to work where she pleases; and, similarly, she sets the time and place for her first voluntary sexual experience, thereby reclaiming ownership of her own body, and to the right to make her own decisions. The novel ends with the birth of her son and her mother’s assurance that there is no need to worry about doing the right thing: “If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” Eva Lupin Race in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings The title of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical story is a line from a poem called “Sympathy” by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. By choosing a line from a poet who is considered representative of the black community, Angelou implies that her personal story has social implications. Furthermore, the author’s dedication, which appears on the opening page of the book, to her son “and all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs,” emphasizes the collective sense of her experience. The novel confronts the issue of race gradually, similar to the way a child discovers the powers that control his or her being. When Maya is young, she moves mainly in the black community, and her interaction with white people is scarce: “In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.” This does not mean, however, that white people’s power over the blacks’ existence went unnoticed. Maya painfully recalls how she and her brother were told to empty the vegetable bin one night, after the sheriff had warned them that the Klan was coming around. Once the bin was empty, Uncle Willie climbed in, and they covered him with vegetables.
All night they heard him mourn from his hiding place “as if he had, in fact, been guilty of some heinous crime.” Reflecting on the story, Maya concludes that she would have nothing to say in defense of the sheriff who, after having warned them, self-righteously believed “that things were as they should” and “that he was a gentle squire, saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned.” Apart from the times that blacks and whites are forced to interact, there is a feeling in the novel that they live in parallel universes. The social organization that separates “powhitetrash” from respectable people is duplicated in Stamps, and Mrs. Flowers— who Maya says “made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself ”—is described as “our side’s answer to the richest woman in town.” Maya reflects, however, that it is lucky she never encountered Mrs. Flowers near “powhitetrash,” because she would have heard her being addressed as “Bertha,” and Maya’s “image of her would have been shattered like the unmendable Humpty-Dumpty.” The clash between the black and the white societies culminates in the scene where Maya/Marguerite describes her graduation. She starts the day with a sense of great achievement, aware that she is graduating at the top of her class. But what begins as a gay celebration of an important event is symbolically interrupted by the appearance of a white man. The usual order of the ceremony, which is to begin with the American national anthem, followed by the pledge of allegiance and then what is known as the Negro national anthem, is interrupted by the white man, who gives a speech before the assembled congregation has had a chance to sing “their” song. The man is a high official who informs them that the central school—“(naturally, the white school was central)”—has been going through improvements, and that he intends their school to follow suit; he then leaves as if their graduation ceremony “had been a mere preliminary” and he now was “off to something really important.” The speech has reminded Marguerite and her friends of the limitations put on black people’s existence, and suddenly their festive mood is gone, and they are only aware of the lack of control that characterizes their lives.
Angelou’s tale exposes the great injustice with which blacks were treated. It also, however, induces in its reader the knowledge that even in the face of great injustice, individuals choose how to react. In one scene, for example, Maya witnesses Momma being abused by white girls, who call her by her first name and expose their genitals to her. Momma remains calm throughout the incident and politely addresses them as “Miz” when they leave. Maya bursts out crying, but when her grandmother patiently waits until she meets her eyes, Maya discovers that Momma is happy and comments: “Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won.” Eva Lupin