“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such moving wonder, such a luminous dignity”. With these words, James Baldwin, who mentored and motivated Maya Angelou to write her autobiographical novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, describes the hope that Maya Angelou harboured for a better world, strongly supported by her love of literature and frequent retreats into the depths of literary worlds. The ever-religious Angelou resorted to the teachings of the Holy Bible to comprehend her tumultuous life and find her identity, she depended on Shakespeare’s Medieval plays to free herself from the burning coals of racial prejudice, and finally she found the means to make sense of her own sexuality and gender peculiarities through Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and Jane Eyre’s Wuthering Heights. Throughout her novel, Maya has used these various literary works of literature to understand and cope with her challenges, to overcome these major pain points in her life and to emerge as one of the greatest female inspirations in the modern world.
An adamant Christian, Angelou took comfort from the Bible to cope with the uncertainties in her life, to determine her identity, an important theme of this novel. ‘Of all the needs a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope, and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God. My pretty black brother was my Kingdom Come’ (Angelou 4:19). Here Maya uses repetition to stress the importance of a staunch need for religion to keep oneself grounded, and metaphorical allusion to refer to her brother as the Savior from the Lord’s Speech who would deliver her from her life of misery. In Maya’s family, the Ten Commandments were certainly followed and provided some structure to their lives. In a humorous twist, Maya’s grandmother changes some of the Commandments with her own. “‘Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’ were the two Commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation “(Angelou 5:21).
Angelou goes on to describe the consequences of breaking any of these sacred commandments of Momma that certainly instilled good manners and values in their lives. Maya also took great strength from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible ‘The laws were so absolute, so clearly set down, that I knew if a person truly wanted to avoid hell and brimstone, and being roasted forever in the devil’s fire, all she had to do was to memorize Deuteronomy and memorize its teaching, word for word (Angelou 6:31). Just as the Hebrews wandered for decades until they reached the promised land, Angelou also held out hope of finding her light at the end of her dismal tunnel. The Christian revival meetings that everyone in Maya’s town went too, even after long days picking cotton until their bones and bodies ached, gave them a reason to bear the inequalities imposed upon them. ‘It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time, than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell. (Angelou 18:111). Angelou uses hyberbole to explain that the Blacks took so much of abuse from the Whites of those times, but ultimately, they would avoid the punishment of Hell
Racism is one of the main underlying themes of Maya Angelou’s book and rears its ugly head many times. Angelou uses Shakespeare and his literary works to soothe the scars of this prejudice. At the tender age of three, Maya and her older brother, Bailey Johnson Jr.‘s parents split up and they were sent to stay with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in a segregated, rural town of Stamps. “During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love.” (Angelou 2:11) Here, Maya uses allusion as she means that she adored Shakespeare’s works and not him as he was dead at the time but this shows how Shakespeare’s words embraced and calmed her down. Showing how racism played an important part in their lives, she goes on to say that she avoided memorizing a line from Merchant of Venice, for fear of antagonizing her grandmother ‘Momma’. However, she drew solace from Shakespeare’s writings. “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ (Shakespeare 1) was a line that a plain-looking black girl like Maya could fully identify with, as she had always struggled with being poor in wealth as well as in appearance, feeling especially inferior to so-called pretty white girls with blonde locks.
Racism once again makes its appearance on Angelou’s 8th grade graduation day when their graduating classes are harshly reminded of the limits on their futures. Just because they are black; they are not expected to attain professional careers, and the girls aren’t expected to do anything but become wives and mothers. As much as they might aspire, the reality is that there are firm limits on what they can do in society, simply because of their skin color; Maya is repulsed by this idea, that the fate of her schoolmates is already decided because of racial prejudice. Following Mr Donleavy’s depressing speech, the allusions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Henry Reed, the class valedictorian’s speech ‘To Be or Not to Be’ are ironic, because as Angelou wrote: ‘We couldn’t be, so the question was a waste of time / There was no “nobler in the mind” for Negroes because the world did n’t think we had minds and they let us know it.
“Outrageous fortune?” Now that was a joke’ (Angelou 23:154). Angelou was obviously uses the rhetoric and quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and actually scoffing at the concept that the world could imagine that black people had sharp minds or good luck and great fortune! Juxtaposed with the “Negro National Anthem,” Maya seems to realize that she is black, and that those ancient works of literature don’t address her situation like those that specifically address the black situation in America. Still basking in Shakespeare’s literary magic, Angelou makes embracing this song synonymous with embracing her skin color; suddenly, she is proud of who she is, and quits her many years spent trying to deny it. Shakespeare had such an influence on Aneglou that in her College days, she admitted that, ‘ I had chosen drama simply because I liked Hamlet’s soliloquy beginning To Be or Not to Be (Angelou 28:184).
Finally, the theme of sexuality and gender confusion is rampant in this novel. Maya Angelou is most confused from a sexual standpoint as she has been raped at an early age by her mother’s boyfriend. This leads her to be wary and dismiss the initial advances of a boy in her school, then over-react when the boy identifies her as his Valentine. As usual, she tries to find refuge and answers in literature and later, stumbles upon the British author Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. ‘The Well of Loneliness was my introduction to lesbianism and what I thought was pornography. For months the book was a treat and a threat (Angelou 5: 274) In this paradoxical statement, Angelou describes the book as a wonderful gift into the exciting world of sex, but at the same time, it was dangerous as it played havoc with her mind and body, and threw her into a state of panic imagining that she might be a lesbian. The book talks about the happiness that two women find together, that is marred by social isolation and rejection, but the novel portrays inversion or homosexuality as a natural, God-given state.
This causes Maya to wonder whether she, as a downtrodden black woman can also find God’s grace, even if she was a social outcast or a homosexual. ‘It stimulated my libido and I told myself that it was educational because it informed me of the difficulties in the secret world of the pervert (Angelou 35:232). Ironically, the book arouses her more than it informs her and she ends up throwing herself into an overnight relationship that culminates in her pregnancy and ultimately in the birth of her son. The role that literature plays In every aspect of Maya’s life is huge. Maya’s first girlfriend, Louise Kendricks reminds her of Jane Eyre, the central figure of one of her favorite novels Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. ‘Louise reminded me of Jane Eyre. Her mother worked in reduced circumstances but she was genteel and though she worked as a maid, I decided she should be called a governess and did so to Bailey and myself (Angelou 20:140). Maya could identify with Jane Eyre, as both of them shared childhoods where they were emotionally and physically abused by people close to them as well as society.
She also saw Louise as being similar to Jane, as even though she had acquired friends at school, she seemed to be troubled and yearning for a deeper friendship. Maya attributes the profession of governess to Louise as Jane Eyre also took on a similar profession. They become staunch friends and allies and this is a great example how a novel assists Maya in identifying with someone who she could confide in, especially about matters involving the other sex, and who serves as her guide out of the maze of gender bewilderment. As artifacts creating complete and meaningful universes, novels and their heroes become means by which Maya apprehends and judges her own bewildering world, creating powerful allusions and adding symbolic meaning to her life.
The reader is also able to grasp the various strong themes of identity crisis, racial injustice and sexual conflict through these powerful literary motifs and hooks. Maya’s biblical allusions establish Maya’s religious identity and are the driving force behind her many of her thoughts and actions. Her allusions of Shakespeare make him symbolic of her love for equality and freedom from racial profiling just as Jane Eyre is her motif of deep friendship, and The Well of Loneliness is symbolic of her own deep abyss of puzzlement and isolation even amidst a sea of people. Maya juxtaposes literature with real life and the two become entwined so completely, that she manages to navigate her ever-changing world of pain, solitude, harassment and loss, and come out at the other end a relatively stable and wholesome person, creating a place for herself in history as one of the greatest female influences of the 20th Century.