Caged Bird Sings

Ghezal Sherzay

Ms. Cece

ENG4U

22 May 2018

Opening the Cage

During the 1960’s, the tension’s of the US was characterized by events of war; Post Slavery, the Great Depression and WWII reminiscences that left a permanent mark even through the making of an advanced industrial nation during the Civil Rights era. Carl Jung had once stated that “Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves”. In other words, individuals can better understand themselves and develop through conflict with other figures in their lives. Surprisingly, this is the case for the main character of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou. Angelou conveys the role of feminism in personal development through her own experiences with others. The recollection of her rape, mental health and racial discrimination in “1960s America” appeals to an audience of today’s modern society, which has been heavily influenced by feminism. The experiences of the individual is expressed as Angelou’s personal narrative substantially built upon history. One can observe Angelou’s series of suffering via her psychological health after being raped, which ultimately proved feminism to be the only mental support system through her universally accepting family; a network that Angelou needed guidance from and support, then realizing that all women need it internationally. The reflections of her life experiences and how she developed from them not only creates the image that we see her character as, but also her credibility. As she dares to write a novel based off the “ugly truth” of American history through an extremely personal level. The taboo nature of this fictional-based autobiography shows how Angelou prevailed through a life of hardship to live and tell her story in hopes of fundamentally helping the next young girl wearing the same shoes.



While many will assume that Maya Angelou wrote to simply share her personal anecdote, by carefully examining I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings one can reveal that a feminist network is what ultimately builds the necessary support for self-actualization. Without it, one would be “left alone on the tightrope of [youth] unknowing [to the] experiences [of] excruciating beauty of all freedom and the threat of eternal indecision” (Angelou, 35).A support system is reliant when finding internal strength to allow the healthy interpersonal relationships one creates to heal themselves insight into their dark past, while seeking advise and guidance in strong women who hold different backgrounds sharing their experiences to others. Although the topic of rape is promptly addressed in today’s society, the author reflects her story in an era where confrontation of rape was neglected and not easy to talk about. Such literary approach shows the incredible power of women supporting other women, specifically in the case of overcoming racial barriers in a small community setting. The hurdles Angelou faced in her life was prejudice in her community, rape by her mother’s boyfriend and self-identity struggles. She felt “awful to be Negro and have no control over [her] life” (Angelou, 301) as she recognizes that a “black female is assaulted in her tender years by [the nature of adolescence] at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power” (Angelou, 273). In other words, American black woman not only face the common problems of being an adolescent, but also racism and sexism. Generally, a character would break down completely and give up on life at this point, however all these circumstances drove Angelou into personal success, education and influenced her to develop altruism through the years. This selfless attribute of Maya does not show that she does not hold sympathy for others, but as a result brings the attention of the reader to the harsh reality of America in the 1960s. A The main focus of her story encourages solving world-wide issues nationally in our modern society, allowing today’s generation to recognize that the roots of social division began generations prior to her’s.

Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman, around the age of 7. Freeman was jailed for one day, however was then found dead four days after being released, which most likely was committed by Angelou’s uncles. As a result of the incident, Angelou was scared and put in a shocked emotional state of being. She turned mute, constantly fighting the mindset, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…” (Angelou, Real Leaders). Angelou repeats the word “kill” multiple times inone statement, showing her struggle with grasping the reality that her actions of confronting and reporting her rape could and did kill a man. At this point, she realizes for the first time the power behind words, as she describes it as something “more than what is set down on paper [with a voice infusing] them with shades of deeper meaning” (Angelou, 43). Although, she was not able to understand that she could use her voice to inform and motivate others to be better individuals. She was stuck with the mindset that her words caused nothing but harm. As a result, she slipped into a dark stage in her life, where she was constantly fighting mental depression solely for five years. During this time period, mental health was neglected and Angelou was forced to live as a “caged bird [singing] with a fearful trill, of things unknown” (Angelou, Poetry Foundation). Angelou considers the conditions of both a free and caged bird allowing her to express her personal emotions about freedom and isolation.



Following the death of Freeman, Angelou and her brother was sent back to live with their grandmother. This was a part of her life where she began to focus on school with the supportive system of her teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who helped bring her voice again. Flowers introduced Angelou to Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe and many other authors, as well as artists, which allowed her to recognize the voice of empathy in another’s character. Angelou recalls how Flowers advised her that, “No one is going to make you talk- possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language in man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals” (Angelou, 98). Flowers not only is educating Angelou, but she is also showing her the importance of seeking her own voice through those who have already expressed themselves. This was the beginning of Angelou “opening the cage” as she was able to find escape in creative pieces of others, ultimately influencing her the desire of creativity in order to further expand her education during a period in history where one was expected not to. However, this was not only education for Angelou; but more like a life-changing experience that allowed to her to learn to take control of her own narrative through the expression of other great author’s, driving her to write a “creative piece” that millions have read around the world today. Where Angelou once believed that words hurt others, reading the work of various great authors made her realize the healing power of words. In addition, Angelou inherently realizes that by identifying with those that differ compared to you such as the dead, white and the great author’s she studied, one can seek indirect mentorship in order to find their own voice within society. Maya Angelou reflects her life experiences and her solution to healing by paying amends to those figures who motivated her the most. One of these role models is Angelou’s grandmother, Annie Henderson, known as Momma. Her grandmother repetitively told her “thou shall not be dirty”, implying a variety of implications through those five simple words (Angelou, 27). After Angelou’s rape, this phrase was constantly attached to her mind, reminding her of her internal struggle of finding her self-worth and respect in order to present herself to the world as a strong, intelligent woman. It seems like there are many implications through her life that are repetitive constantly reminding her of the rough times she experienced, proving the significance of those reoccurring hardships to be stressors motivating her to help others while keeping her humble to her roots. The mindset that Angelou began to use to motivate herself is very relevant to our society as many young women enter post-secondary institutions, all with different personal histories and backgrounds. They struggle to keep their heads high and present themselves to the world as real, strong women, proactively seeking to better their career goals and interpersonal connections. While Angelou lived in a period where this was frowned upon, she dedicated her life to seeing this form of equal rights in action. Angelou’s faith in God also plays a major role in her life as she states that “out of God’s merciful bosom I had won reprieve” (Angelou, 175). Throughout the impact her experiences had on her physically, Angelou also struggles with stabilizing her faith in God. Like many people in today’s society, Angelou felt lost, therefore losing sight of God and the inability to recognize his involvement in her life. Both God and Momma were the influences that promoted Angelou to escape her cage, which held her captive for many years as a rape survivor after sharing her story to the world. Not only had Angelou found a female support system that included Ms. Flowers and her grandmother, but was able to find a superior strength by putting her faith in God.

All in all, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a great novel that not only shows the reader the division created by racial discrimination in the 1960s but ultimately how feminism prevailed in society. She invites the audience to expose and shed light on the societal flaws embedded within Maya Angelou’s experiences in hopes that our generation can make a change in how society approaches rape, mental health, and many other issues. This novel was released during a very crucial time in American History, the Civil Rights era. Angelou strongly broke the barrier of time through her piece by revealing the ugly reality of those major flaws nestled within history. Carl Jung strongly argues Maya Angelou’s phases of darkness a result of others in her life. Her ability to find “life” again by gaining power and confidence through a female supportive system allowed her to portray herself as the strong, intelligent woman we see her as today.