I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Religion Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion Theme Icon

Religion also plays a complex role in Marguerite’s upbringing—though the church is a kind of sanctuary for the adults in the book, Marguerite is often intimidated by the church and associates it with punishment.

The importance of religion to black southerners is made clear early in the book. The passion of many adults in Marguerite’s church service embarrasses her; but adults see the church as a sanctuary for their displaced and disenfranchised people. The revivalist meetings bring every black person in the town together—no one ever misses one, and it is a place where blacks affirm their own worth and humanity in a culture and landscape that has oppressed them for generations.

Marguerite and Bailey are raised in this highly religious town and their grandmother instills them with a sense of the importance of faith early on, often through discipline. Marguerite is once punished so thoroughly for laughing in church that for a long time afterwards the memory of it makes her cry. She also uses the phrase “by the way” casually, without knowing that it means “by the way of God” and is therefore a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain, and her Grandmother punishes her for this as well. Both of these whippings stand out in her childhood memory. Marguerite also enforces religious moral codes on herself from a young age. She says her favorite book in the bible is Deuteronomy, because it gives clear instructions for how to live a sin-free and virtuous life.

Religion has a complex place in this text and in Maya’s life. She understands it as a kind of refuge for black southerners who need the church for its strong sense of community and hope. Marguerite uses religion to inform her often fiercely strict moral code, but as an adult Maya recognizes that religion can foster its own kind of ignorance and passivity, which she believes is a dangerous thing.

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Religion Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Below you will find the important quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings related to the theme of Religion.
Chapter 3 Quotes

It seemed that the peace of day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes, and the crippled was still in effect.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Uncle Willie
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelou’s exploration of the Black community’s rhythms of daily life in Stamps, shaped by their visits to her grandmother’s store and their difficult days of manual labor, describes early morning and nighttime as periods of rest so deeply needed that they might be sacred. At the same time, though, Angelou writes with definite sarcasm; the grouping of “children, Negroes, and the crippled” highlights the ridiculousness of the pairing in the first place – the equating of black people with children and cripples – and in so doing shows how such a grouping emerges from white paternalism (and not from Angelou’s God himself).

Throughout the book, Angelou suggests that the white community’s stereotypes of black people (often referred to as Negroes here) are both true and not. When they are true, they’re usually true for the wrong reasons. The Black community in Stamps holds sacred these periods of evening rest, but not because of any connection between black people and children or cripples.

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Chapter 18 Quotes

Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness. It was better to be meek and lowly…than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Maya’s elaborate way of telling the world she is forced to live in to “go to hell”— a brief moment of ironic distancing from her world as respite from the exhaustion of constantly noticing everything in it. Maya’s list of things that whitefolks can keep— money, power, segregation, sarcasm, etc.— combines tangible things with cultural and emotional realities. By pairing these two types of things, for example segregation and sarcasm, Angelou creates a comic effect while making a real point. She ends on “whiteness,” the thing she least wants white people to give to her.

“Whiteness” refers not only to the color of their skin, but also to the collection of ideas attached by stereotype to the white person— respectability, money, power, and so on. In fact, whiteness in Maya’s view is really just the amalgamation of all the things she has already mentioned letting white people keep. Angelou adopts the archaic language of the whitefolks’ racist conception of black people (“meek and lowly”) in her own sarcastic turn of phrase. If black people are “meek and lowly,” Angelou concludes in the same Biblical register, white people will “spend eternity frying in the fires of hell.”