Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.
Most people probably think of Maya Angelou as the nice lady who reads poems at presidential inaugurations and other auspicious events. When you hear the name Maya Angelou, you probably think of someone who looks like this.
It might be hard to imagine her as someone who looked like this.
It's probably even harder to imagine her living in a community of homeless teenagers in L.A. or getting a job as the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco when she was just 15 years old, but it's these challenging experiences in her early life that likely led her to write such rich and emotionally poignant poems and stories.
One of those stories is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1969 autobiography of Angelou's early years and her first published book (though she had previously appeared on stage and record). Although Caged Bird is highly regarded for its literary qualities, it's also a true story of Angelou's life, and so it makes for an easy way to understand her struggles growing up. So let's turn to that book now. Remember, although by convention we talk about literature in the present tense, the stuff we're about to mention actually happened to the real Maya Angelou.
While no one's life is without its challenges, it seems like a young Maya (short for Marguerite) had to deal with challenge after challenge from a very early age. When she was just three years old, she and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandparents after their parents got divorced. Divorce is never easy on kids, but the sense of rejection and abandonment Maya and Bailey felt is especially profound.
In addition to this, Maya's a young, black girl growing up in the town of Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s, and Maya and Bailey experience the hurtful effects of racism in almost every aspect of their social life - whether it's observing the horror of the Ku Klux Klan or just enduring insulting everyday behavior, like a white person calling Maya 'Mary' instead of her actual name.
Maya is filled with a sense of inferiority in comparison to the white girls in her town, believing herself to be uglier and just generally less competent than her white counterparts. Her brother, Bailey, a more well-adjusted and confident kid, often sticks up for his sister when others attack her.
Eventually, when Maya's about eight, their father reappears seemingly out of the blue and brings the kids to live with their mother in St. Louis. While this might seem like an improvement for the kids, it quickly proves not to be. Their mom, Vivian, works in casinos and is taken up with a man the kids call Mr. Freeman, who will eventually rape a young Maya. Freeman stands trial and is found guilty, only to end up brutally murdered, most likely by some members of Maya's family or someone acting on their behalf.
If this seems like a series of events that would traumatize an already fragile young woman, it's because it is. Following Freeman's murder, Maya becomes consumed with feelings of guilt (which we as readers may think is unnecessary since she did nothing wrong) and is only able to talk to Bailey. The two kids will eventually be shipped back to Stamps to live with their grandmother.
While Maya continues to be hurt by the racism that permeates the region, she also begins to take comfort in the sense of community she finds in her church. A turning point in the novel is when the African-American community in Stamps rallies together to listen to Joe Louis, an African-American boxer, take down a white opponent in a big fight. Though the shared victory conveys a sense of optimism and feels symbolic, it by no means indicates an end to the racial prejudice of the region and of the time. Maya personally experiences humiliation when a white dentist refuses to treat her.
Maya is enduring an internal struggle as well. Her rape and Freeman's murder clearly haunt her, and she's still not really speaking to people. Things begin to look up for her when she meets a woman named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a wealthy, black woman in the town of Stamps. She takes Maya under her wing and fosters a love of reading and books in Maya. Anyone who has found solace in literature can understand how valuable what Mrs. Flowers did was, and the positive effect it has on Maya is considerable.
Eventually, their grandmother (whom the kids call Momma) decide that the South isn't a safe place for young, black children to grow up, and once she is able to afford it, sends them to live with their mom out in California. This time, their mother, Vivian, is in a relationship with a good man, who Maya calls Daddy Clidell. Though not a highly educated man, Daddy Clidell is a stable adult and a real father figure to Maya and Bailey, something the kids never really had before.
The contrast between Daddy Clidell and Maya's biological father (Big Bailey or Daddy Bailey) is particularly noticeable when Maya goes down to visit him in L.A. one summer. Though she doesn't have a license yet, she ends up driving her drunk father home from Mexico, and later gets into a pretty gnarly fight with his girlfriend Dolores, where Dolores literally cuts Maya.
Not feeling safe at Daddy Bailey's place and too afraid to return home to her mom's, Maya eventually joins a small community of homeless people, who provide her with a sense of support and community, and she's inspired to see this group made up of all different races getting along and treating each other well.
Eventually she'll rejoin her mother, brother and stepfather back in San Francisco. Her brother, Bailey, is having difficulties at home and at school and wants to leave to work on the railroad. Yes, all the livelong day. Maya, through dogged persistence, becomes the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco when she is just 15 years old, though she doesn't keep the job very long.
She also struggles with her sexual identity, briefly wondering if she could be a lesbian and/or hermaphrodite, two sexual identities that she has somehow equated in her mind. To help prove to herself that she is neither, she has sex with a teenage boy she knows. Because no misguided deed goes unpunished, she gets pregnant.
Maya hides her pregnancy (even from her parents, though not from Bailey) until she finishes high school, and delivers a healthy baby boy. Though she is afraid she will hurt him (and she seems mostly concerned with physical pain, but the implications that she's afraid that she could inflict the emotional pain like her own parents did is hard to ignore), but actually learns, through her mother, that her maternal instincts are stronger than she realizes, and she can keep her baby safe. It's a pretty sweet and heartwarming moment to end the book and leaves the reader feeling hopeful for Maya as a mother.
We, as readers, know that Maya Angelou will go on to become one of the most respected poets of her day, writing poems that are often inspired by her life or the black experience in the United States. She's earned over 30 honorary degrees and has an impressive lineup of friends, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., novelist James Baldwin, Oprah and President Bill Clinton. President Clinton even asked her to recite a poem at his 1993 inauguration. Some of her most famous poems include 'Phenomenal Woman,' 'On the Pulse of Morning' and, appropriately enough, 'Caged Bird.'
Though some critics don't consider her poems 'literary' enough, it's hard to deny the effect of her poems when read aloud, which might be why she's such a popular choice for performing at fancy events. Like song lyrics - hearing her poems read aloud can help you tap into the emotion of her words more than simply reading them on the page.
Though she is viewed as a highly dignified, accomplished and admirable woman (because she is) today, Maya Angelou's early years were marked by racism, neglect, abuse and confusion. Young Maya would eventually find comfort in literature, but would still have to endure a lot of pain and humiliation at the hands of strangers, acquaintances and even her own family. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles Maya Angelou's childhood to teen years, showing us some of the major life experiences that would help Maya grow into herself as a woman, writer and mother.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets