“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
Contemporary American literature is largely dominated by white male authors. These authors are limited in their empathy and imagination by their own experiences and inherent privilege that comes with being on the top of the social hierarchy. Therefore, they were unable to authentically portray the lives, thoughts, and experiences of black women in a segregated and institutionally racist society. The autobiographic tale of Maya Angelo, titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a coming of age story that reflects on the large issues in a black girl’s life that helped shape her as a person. The major themes of her story include racism, ethnic identity, education, and abuse. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the influence of socio-cultural factors on the development of the protagonist of the story.
Lev Vygotsky forwarded the sociocultural theory of development in the second half of the 20th century. It revolves around the statement that a person is shaped throughout their lifetime by interaction with other people and the environment more so than by genetics or natural predispositions. This puts the culture and society at the forefront of human development. According to Vygotsky, cultural beliefs and attitudes towards learning experiences inform and shape individuals on all stages of development, from infancy and into adulthood. In analyzing Maya’s coming of age in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, several key parameters would be involved, such as (Daniels, 2016):
- The sociocultural perception of black people;
- The sociocultural perception of women;
- The sociocultural perception of crimes towards women;
- The sociocultural opinions on sexual identity;
- The influence of contemporary education on socioeconomic outcomes.
These parameters determine the key social factors for a person’s identity.
The dichotomy is simple: literate/illiterate, black/white, rich/poor, victim/perpetrator, vulnerable/empowered, and others. The path of Maya’s development as an independent character would be viewed through the prism of those factors. Her character is an oddity in that regard, as, despite all of the odds stacked against her, she managed to become a strong and independent woman.
The Evolution of Maya’s Character
One of the first sociocultural factors that shape Maya’s character since her birth is the absence of a mother and a father. She and her brother Bailey are abandoned by their biological parents and instead are raised by her grandmother and uncle in Arkansas. Although her grandmother, which is often referred to as “Momma,” is doing a good job of raising the girl and her brother, she cannot fully replace both parents (Angelou, 1997). This makes the girl feel vulnerable and detached from others, as she lacks her mother’s warmth and her father’s protection from an early age. This situation is one of the staple sociocultural calamities experienced by the black community in the USA, as generations of poverty, illiteracy, and crime have nursed many irresponsible behaviors, some of which Maya inherited in her life.
Another factor that formed the growth of Maya as a character since birth was racism. The girl was surrounded by racial assumptions all of her life. Most of them were negative ones, which forced the girl to equate white culture with class, success, and majesty. It was something that Momma tried to keep the children out of, to prevent the thoughts of self-deprecation from poisoning them.
This could be seen by the end of Chapter 1, where the children felt discouraged from learning of Shakespeare because he was white (Angelou, 1997). With racism also came the feeling of the ever-looming threat as well as the knowledge that they were not welcome. This was experienced when the family had been refused many services by the white population of Arkansas, including the pivotal scene where the dentist refused to treat Maya’s rotting tooth (Angelou, 1997). This was a significant revelation to the girl and her family. A true example of inequality and racism, as the dentist considered treating the girl beneath him.
The passing of the Ku Klux Klan through the town was also a terrifying experience. Her uncle Willie was forced to hide in the cabbage bin, which was a humiliating experience not only for him but also for Momma and the children (Angelou, 1997). All of these experiences combined made the girl vulnerable and detached, with a very bleak outlook on the white society. Because of this, her character was molded to be trusting of white people who did not show these traits to the same degree and even expressed kindness and fondness towards young Maya.
The two white people who had a critical role in shaping Maya into the person she had become were Mr. Freeman and Mrs. Flowers. Mr. Freeman traumatized the girl greatly by sexually abusing her and threatening her brother, which affected the girl’s sexuality, making her fearful of boys, and also making her reclusive, as the girl feared her words had the power of life and death. Mrs. Flowers was the one to help undo some of the damage and introduce the concept of literacy into the story.
She encourages Maya by acquainting her with many books found in her house, which told inspirational stories and greatly expanded the girl’s worldview, helping her become more independent as a result (Angelou, 1997). The message of symbolism behind Mrs. Flowers’ intervention is clear. An illiterate and uneducated mind is easier to intimidate and keep under the yoke of racism and slavery. The fact Maya is capable of standing on her own two feet after the incident is largely Mrs. Flowers’ achievement.
Another factor that molded Maya into the person she is now is the society’s views on female sexuality. The girl feels sexually attracted to other girls, but her desires are informed by the generally negative views and prejudices against lesbians. Had she not grown up in such a society, Maya’s desires would have been perfectly natural. However, the fear and revulsion of herself that she experienced did not come from within; it was influenced by the perceived views of others, including her family.
The power of such influence was immense, as it forced the girl to seek out a boy and have sex with him just to prove to herself and everyone else that she was not a lesbian. This desperate act of attempting to “fix herself” ended up with Maya being pregnant (Angelou, 1997). The pregnancy was the last factor that informed the girl’s view of herself and her position in the world. Instead of ruining her, the birth of the child gave Maya strength and purpose in life.
Numerous socio-cultural factors have formed Maya’s personality in positive and negative ways. Racism, prejudice, rape, and injustice forced the girl into a shell that prevented her from shining, while kindness, acceptance, family support, literacy, and motherhood helped bring the best in her, and shaped Maya into a strong person as we see her by the end of the book. It shows that while society was hostile to women and minorities, they had to find strength from within to keep going. The birth of a child is a powerful symbolic move of that inner strength and femininity.
Angelou, M. (1997). I know why the caged bird sings. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Daniels, H. (2016). Vygotsky and pedagogy. London, UK: Routledge.