Trauma and Racial Issues in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
This research paper attempts to analyze Maya Angelou’s one of the series of her autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings using two toolkit strategies for reading life narratives; trauma and scriptotherapy, race and identity. In her autobiography, we can vividly see her traumatic psychological state of mind and her experiences grown up in a Black-dominated community. We can also analyze the confusing state of her mind regarding her sexual identity at the last part of her autobiography.
Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, represents all the black Negro women who have faced the same unfortunate consequences in their life. Maya Angelou (Marguerita) has suffered from many things in her early childhood. She had to confront racial discrimination throughout her life. Angelou was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend Mr. Freeman. Because of her physical as well as mental assault, she turned herself into mute. She started living a lonely life. She was in a condition of PTSD (post-traumatic state disorder). Cathy Caruth, in her book, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History, defines trauma:
. . . trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena . . . physician and psychiatrists have begun to reshape their thinking about the physical and mental experience, including most recently the responses to a wide variety of experiences (including child abuse, rape, auto and industrial accidents. And so on) . . .” (181-182).
Angelou was in a state of shock. She was not even able to understand what was going wrong with her at that time. She was very young and innocent as a lamb. But her memory was not allowing her to forget that heinous incident. She was haunted repeatedly by the same incident. Susannah Radstone in her article says that “a memory becomes traumatic when becomes associated, later, with inadmissible meaning . . .” (17). The incident is never toxic. The memory of a person is responsible for trauma. Memory makes incident unbearable. She was badly traumatized by that incident. Angelou started feeling guilty and withdrew herself from everyone.
In her autobiography, she has explained each and everything vividly. We can explicitly feel the same intolerable pain of a little girl who was being raped at the age of eight. It was terrific. She has written in her autobiography;
“He released me enough to snatch down my bloomers and he dragged me closer to him. Turning the radio up loud, too loud, he said, if you scream . . . then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart . . . my legs throbbed, or rather inside of my thighs throbbed . . . thrum . . . step . . . thrum . . . step . . . STEP ON THE CRACK . . . thrum . . . step” (78).
He almost tore her into pieces. Her senses were gone and fell down on a floor. She was unconscious and admitted to the hospital for several days. She wanted to tell everything about that incident. But afraid of Mr. Freeman’s threaten to kill Bailey. After few days her brother Bailey became a success to reveal truth from her mouth and she told everything to him and then his uncle Willie Killed him in order to take revenge. Though Angelou was recovered physically, her inner wound remains deep inside his mind for forever and remains silent for several years and suffered from PTSD.
Furthermore, in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we can also see the issues of race and her identity. The title of her book also symbolizes her imprisoned condition and her wish for getting liberty and happiness. Being a black woman, she faced humiliations in her life. In the beginning part of her autobiography, Angelou has said that “if growing up is painful for a Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult” (4). Angelou was double marginalized; being a black woman in the southern part of America. At that time, Black people were treated very ruthlessly by white Americans. Her autobiography also tells us about the history of Black Americans. In her early age, she has encountered with several problems by her white neighbors. Although Angelou Grandma was relatively wealthy, the white children used to tease her and her grandma. They used to reveal public hairs in order to humiliate white women. Once, Uncle Willie hides inside the vegetable bin to protect himself from the Klan raiders. Maya Angelou’s name has also changed into Mary by a resist employer. She also got difficulty to get a job. Blacks used to biased everywhere at that time. Once, she had toothache problem, her Momma took her to the hospital in order to cure her rotten tooth but a doctor refused for her treatment. These incidents show how Angelou has been troubled not only being a female but also being a black.
At the end of her high school, writes in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that she started being worried about her gender issues. She started doubting herself that she might be lesbian and then she initiates a sexual relationship with a teenage boy and became pregnant at the age of sixteen. It was really challenging. She shared about her pregnancy to the Bailey and he suggested her not to reveal the truth before completing high school. Then after completing her high school education, Angelou gave birth to a baby boy and, started a job as a waitress and nurtured him independently.
Many reviewers have reviewed on her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. James Baldwin, one of the most famous authors and social critic has wonderfully appreciated the work of Maya Angelou. He quotes that, “This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of a new error in the minds and hearts of all black men and women . . . I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity”. He seems moved by her writing. He appreciated her work with heartedly. Another famous critic and television show producer Oprah Winfrey has also glorified Maya Angelou’s work and she relates herself to Angelou’s experiences. Because she is also Black woman belong from same southern part of America where she has also encountered with the same problems of Maya. She says that “Maya Angelou’s autobiography was the first book I ever read that made me feel my life as a colored girl growing up in Mississippi deserved validation. I loved it from the opening lines”. She seems very affected by Maya Angelou’s autobiography: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Though Angelou confronted with verities of problems in her early life, she never gives up. When she was just three, her parents send her away from them to her grandma’s house in Arkansas. She somehow adjusts herself there but after few years her again took her and leaves her with mother and there she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She lost her childhood very miserably. She turns into mute as a statue. But somehow, with the help of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps“, who encourages Angelou through books and communication to regain her voice and soul. She became her coaxer to communicate and write her experience on a book.
Thus, we affirm that Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a masterpiece work where she has raised the issues of racial discrimination and child abuse through her own experience. It also presents how she maintains herself from such a disastrous situation through writing (scriptotherapy) and communicating with different people (talking cure method), involving herself in a civil right movement and other different distinct things. Maya Angelou’s finally, became a successful woman in a world as a writer, poet, actress, dancer, journalist, and social right activist.
Caruth, Cathy. “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History.” Yale French Studies79 (1991): 181. Print.
Radstone, Susannah. Trauma Theory: Context, Politics, Ethics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001: 21. Print.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.