Young Marguerite grows up in the segregated American south; but I Know why the Caged Bird Sings is not simply an investigation of the history and effects of segregation: it is an incisive and honest examination of race, inequality, and identity.
Marguerite is taught by her grandmother to fear and avoid white people, and to think of them as godless, and not to be trusted. At the same time, she teaches her grandchildren never to speak disrespectfully to a white person, even if the person was “powhitetrash”—in other words a white person with very little stature. In the memoir, Maya Angelou carefully describes and records the reality that interacting with a white person in the segregated American south is dangerous for a black person. The Ku Klux Klan—casually referred to as “the boys” by the town sheriff—lynch black men for even looking at a white woman the wrong way. Black people cannot feel safe around white people, because insulting a white person (even inadvertently, even if provoked) is quite literally a deadly mistake. However, this internalized fear and loathing of white people is accompanied in Marguerite by the desire to be white. White people are, in Marguerite’s eyes, prettier, richer, and happier. They are treated more fairly by the law, their stories are represented in books and movies, they do not live in fear of racial violence. Whiteness is superior, and the effect that this cultural inequality has on Marguerite’s young mind is immense.
The book does not stop at recording and cataloguing the racial inequality between black people and white people. It also identifies a complex hierarchy within the black community between light-skinned black people and dark-skinned black people. Light skin is considered more beautiful, and garners more respect. Marguerite’s mother is light-skinned; Marguerite, upon reuniting with her at the age of 8, thinks that she is too pretty to be a mother. She rationalizes her own rejection by appealing to a general cultural appreciation of light skin over dark skin. Marguerite is dark but her mother is light—she thinks this must be the reason her mother sent her away. Marguerite is also envious of other children in the town, who are either bi-racial or borne of light-skinned parents, who are lighter and therefore, in her mind, better than her. Uncle Willie faces even more discrimination and violence because he is black, dark-skinned, and crippled. His character in many ways demonstrates how various oppressions and prejudices can converge and complicate a person’s identity and experience.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is in part an account of Maya Angelou’s experience growing up black in the American South. Her race, and the violence, discrimination, and degradation she faced as a result of her race, played an integral role in shaping her as a person and as an artist. Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of this memoir is its nuanced, honest, and unflinching portrayal of racism and its consequences in America.
Race, Inequality, and Identity ThemeTracker
Race, Inequality, and Identity Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
When I was described by our playmates as being shit color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin…And yet he loved me.
Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.
The Black woman in the south who raises sons, grandsons, and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.
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.
“It looks like Joe Louis is going down.” My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through the slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.
The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste, and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.