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Displacement in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Maya Angelou's book 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' is full of examples of the displacement she experienced from childhood through her teenage years. In this lesson, we'll look more closely at a few instances.

Being Displaced

When Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in the summer of 2005, it left billions of dollars of damages and thousands of fatalities in its wake. It also caused the displacement of tens of thousands who sought shelter in New Orleans' Superdome and relocated throughout the country, some of whom never returned to their native land.

The act of displacement is typically associated with some kind of trauma or disaster, like the hurricane we just discussed or in the author's painful childhood at the center of this lesson. Let's take a closer look at the theme of displacement in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Displacement in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The idea of displacement could be summed up as a move or dislocation, or even the notion of forcing someone to leave a place because of outside circumstances. The victims of Hurricane Katrina were displaced because of severe weather. In Angelou's book, her displacement starts at a very early age.

Childhood Displacement

''When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed -- 'To Whom It May Concern' -- that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.''

This is the opening line in the first chapter of Angelou's book, which shows the significance of the events of her move and the impact they had on her life. It's clear from the wording that Angelou considered herself like a piece of luggage being shipped to her grandmother in Stamps from her parents after their divorce. Angelou goes on in the next few lines to describe the loneliness she felt as random train passengers felt pity for 'the poor little motherless darlings' and fed the children along the journey.

In another instance, Angelou is reciting a poem with these words, ''I didn't come to stay...'', an all too real assessment of the young Angelou's childhood to that point, since Angelou didn't really get to stay anywhere long enough to feel at home. This becomes something of a defense mechanism for Angelou, this idea that she perhaps didn't want to stay or wouldn't be in any one place too long, which softens the emotional blow of not being stable anywhere.

Racial Displacement

Once Angelou arrived in Stamps, the reality of the segregated and racist South didn't take long to set in.

Angelou notes the displacement between the black community and the rest of the town in this quote: ''A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white 'things' -- whitefolks' cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women.''

From an early age, Angelou was able to observe the displacement of the African-American community from the way the rest of the world operated at the time, how they were forced not only into different, lesser parts of town, but into different, lesser ways of doing things.

In another instance, after Angelou and her brother had gotten settled in Stamps, Bailey is forced to participate in the aftermath of a man's death, threatened by a white man to help carry the body of a black man found dead in a lake. When the children's grandmother finds out, she begins making plans to get the youngsters out of town: ''I'm sure she began piecing together the details of our California trip that night,'' Angelou explained. Though Bailey was not responsible for the man's death, the associated fear and guilt showed how racism had the power to displace even the innocent.

For her part, Angelou was well aware of her displacement, likening her awareness of not belonging to ''the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.'' She is in a constant state of displacement due to overwhelming social forces like racism and sexism.

Home Displacement

The concept of home is one that Angelou struggles with throughout the text. Between the ages of three and 16, she is moved back and forth between Arkansas and California numerous times.

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