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I know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical account of Maya Angelou that demonstrates how love for literature and having a strong character can play a significant role in overcoming racism and distress. In the course of the story, it is evident that Maya changes from being a casualty of racism to become a young woman with self-dignity and identity that helps her to overcome prejudice. The context of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings focuses on the problems associated with racism that was prevalent in the southern states. Racist oppression is a common theme in the book that is portrayed by all the major characters; in fact, all the other themes in the book are closely related to racism, identity and segregation. In addition, the style and genre, and the structure of this literary work make significant contributions towards its thematic development, which focus on resistance to racism, the significance of the family, self-identity and definition and independence. Walker (95) argues that I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings is characterized by thematic unity, which is achieved using the structure adopted in the text that takes more of a thematic form rather than a chronological form. In addition, Angelou managed to emphasize on the universal ideas in her literary work irrespective of its periodic quality. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou used the major characters of the book to facilitate its thematic development identity, racism and literacy throughout the text. Basing on this assertion, this essay uses evidence from the book to affirm the role that the major characters played in the development of the major themes in the book.
The first major theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is identity. In the course of the text, Maya is depicted as symbolic character representing every African American girl growing in America. Maya is depicted as transforming from being a victim of racial segregation to a person who views racial segregation with self-identity and dignity. Maya Angelou uses her character in the narrative to form the female cultural identity. Lauret (97) points out that this characterization helps in emphasizing the theme of female cultural identity in the literary work. From the outset of the text, Maya is of the view that other people judge her unfairly because of her clumsy appearance. Under this identity conflict because of race, Maya’s fantasies revolve around having blond hair, blue eyes yet are trapped in a “black ugly dream”. The characterization of Maya contributes towards the thematic development of identity through her difficulties while growing up as a black in a society characterized by racial segregation. Arensberg (116) argues that theme of identity is one of the major motifs in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, whereby the sense of the self is depicted as of ultimate significance in the course of the narrative. According to Lauret (102), the female writers of the 1960s including Angelou made use of autobiography to communicate their views regarding the lives of women and gender identities in a patriarchal society. Lauret (103) further asserts that there is a connection between I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the feminist narratives of the time. In addition, the theme of identity is portrayed through the greater societal forces that resulted in a displacement of all the African American society in the United States. Maya’s displacement serves to worsen her pain since she is an example of a forgotten child, who must accept the “unimaginable reality” that she was unwanted and not loved. The theme of identity is developed by the characterization of Maya is in a world where beauty is measured by the degree of their whiteness, Maya is rejected basing on this account. This results in the internalization of rejection by Maya by considering her ugliness as unconditional. The characterization of Maya, through being sent away from her parents at a tender age, serves to indicate psychological rejection. Lauret (100) maintains that Maya’s characterization through numerous roles, incarnations and identities in the course of the narrative plays a significant role in demonstrating the interrelationship between oppression and personal history. For instance, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou points out that the “racist habit” is associated with renaming blacks, as evident when Maya’s white employer calls her Mary. Angelou is of the view that this renaming is an instance of a racist insult that affects the self-image and racial orientation of Maya. Lauret (99) further argues that the instance of renaming places emphasis on the insufficiency of Maya’s feelings, her self-identity and uniqueness. An example in the text that serves to solidify the self-identity of Maya was during a trip to Mexico accompanied with her father, whereby she was allowed to drive the car for the first time. This is in contrast with her prior experiences in the sense that she had the capacity of controlling her own fate. This ordeal is critical to the growth of Maya, since it offered Maya an opportunity to understand the aspects of self-knowledge and affirm her individual self-worth.
As a continuation on the theme of identity, motherhood is a prevalent theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that places black mothers as breeders and matriarchs. Lauret (97) indicates that the plot construction and the development of characters in the narrative have been influenced by the motherhood motif. For instance, during the initial five years of her life, Maya perceives herself as an orphan, who finds solace in the thought of her dead mother. The feelings that Maya that Maya had for her mother and the relationship with her own mother are evident in the ambivalence. The theme of identity is also emphasized through the strong black woman motif in the narrative. Irrespective of the fact that Maya continually dealt with insecurity and displacement in the course of her childhood, she turns out to be a remarkable role model for black women. In addition, other characters such as Momma, Vivian, Bertha Flowers and Grandmother Baxter determine their own paths that depict their self-identity, dignity and respect. No black character in the narrative surrender to the indignities and identity crisis posed by racism, which implies that their characterization enhances the development of the theme of identity and racism. Maya finds her own path and fights to be the first street car conductor of African American origin in San Francisco. Irrespective of the challenges posed by the racist society, the character of Momma depicts self-respect and faith, which in turn influences Maya and Bailey. The confrontation with the three girls, which is considered an overt instance of racism, is a victory for Momma due to her refusal to be displaced. Momma approached racism with dignity, respect and maturity. Momma is depicted as the moral focus of the family in relation to the life of Maya. The children are raised by Momma using strong Christian values and rules. Momma is depicted as having an unshakable faith in God, the loyalty she has to the black community and love for everything that is around him (Angelou 65). In fact, Momma informs Maya of how she is supposed to carry herself when with white people and adopts a realist approach with regard to race relations. This characterization plays an integral role in the thematic development of identity and racism. At the end of Chapter 34, Maya says that the character of the black woman should be perceived as having a fruitful outcome because of the struggle. Black women who can overcome the influences of racism and sexism have the chance of succeeding in finding their own paths. Such women have survived, and black women are identified as survivors. It is arguably evident that character development in this case has played a significant role in the development of the theme of identity in the text; this has been further enhanced using motifs such as strong black women.
The second theme that has been developed using the major characters in the narrative is racism. The characterization of the society and the major characters in the text depicts that the society is an instance of a racist world that comprises of black and white, and male and female. The characters have different views towards racism. According to Lauret (102), Maya’s life is shaped by the evil directed at black women in a racist society, which in turn helps in shaping her identity and resistance towards racism during adulthood. In the narrative, Angelou uses a bird struggling to get out of its cage as a metaphor. The caged bird denotes the limits of Maya’s confinement that mainly due to racism and oppression.
Angelou states that her survival in the racist society was facilitated by her constant involvement with people from the black community of Stamps and her stunning and realistic depiction of racist characters. Lauret (101) maintains that Angelou’s views and characterization on racism enhanced thematic unity in the narrative, which in turn helped in the development of central themes in the literary work. The structure of the text also makes significant contributions towards the development of central ideas in the text. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings commenced with the earliest memories and later related to other events in a non-chronological manner. How the characters confront racism also makes significant contributions towards the development of the theme of racism. For instance, Maya confronts the “powhitetrash” event using rage, dishonor, resentment and defenselessness. However, Momma informs her of how one can uphold self-dignity and pride while confronting racism. In the narrative, Momma is depicted as confronting racism in a dignified manner. Momma is depicted as realist. Furthermore, Angelou describes the black community of Stamps as strong and unified, which indicates how the African American community challenges oppressive institutions. Arensberg (114) insists that the character development of Maya helps in thematic development of racism through her transformation from strong racial hatred towards the embracement of strong racial identity. Other black characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings depict various ways used for resisting racism. For instance, Momma upholds her self-dignity using the realist approach by perceiving circumstances realistically. Big Bailey confronts racism through the acquisition of flashy clothing and a fancy car in order to decree his self-worth. In addition, Bailey mingles with women in order to proclaim his masculinity as a method to dehumanize and emasculate racism. The friends of Daddy Clidell use the injustice of the white people against using complicated and worthwhile cons. The family Vivian aims at nurturing toughness and forms connections with the underground forces to prevent any instances associated with racial harassment. The black community made use of the church to engage in subversive resistance to racism. The black community and black characters in the narrative are depicted as being optimistic for ending the confines imposed by racism. The racist society shaped their characters by developing various ways that they can use to confront racism.
The third theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings facilitated by the development of characters is literacy. Lauret (102) points out that the narrative focuses on what Angelou’s knowledge and how she acquired it. The informal education of Angelou is compared with the education of other black authors of the 20th century. The character of Maya is depicted as falling in love with the literature of William Shakespeare. Walker (100) argues that there a link between the rape of Maya with “The Rape of Lucrece” by Shakespeare, which Maya engages in constant memorization. The literature motif is evident throughout the narrative in the character development of Maya, whereby literature plays a vital role in enhancing her personal confidence and offering a world characterized by fantasy. For instance, when Maya was feeling isolated while in St. Lois, she decides to take refuge in the library. In addition, Maya’s rediscovery of her voice after the rape incident is facilitated by Mrs. Bertha Flowers who encourages her to make use of the words of other prominent poets and writers. In the course of the narrative, it is evident that Maya engages in constant quoting and referring to literature that she studied during her childhood. Bailey also appreciates the love that Maya has for literature by offering her gifts like Edgar Allen Poe’s book. Maya makes use of literary works to make sense out of her experiences and cope up with events taking place in her life. Walker (102) points out that the power of words is evident repeatedly in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. For instance, Maya decides not to speak after the rape ordeal since she feared the vicious nature of the power of words.Mrs. Flowers introduces Maya to the genre of classic literature and informs her of the positive influence of language, which in turn makes Maya to speak once again. The portrayal of the character of Maya as influenced by spiritual works, narratives of slaves and poetry denotes the significant role of character development in promoting the theme of literacy throughout the work. For instance, Maya read the bible and remembered numerous passages from the text. African American spirituality helped the characters in the narrative to overcome racism and oppression. For instance, the characterization of the black community as a “community of song, laughter and courage” helped them to thrive amidst racial segregation and oppression. The inference from this is that most characters in the narrative relied on various forms of literature not only as a source of entertainment, but also as a source of empowerment. For instance, the church offered as a sense of hope and salvation. For instance, the ghost story by Taylor indicates the pervasive nature of race relations. Literacy provides an avenue through which people facing oppression can continue with their life through serving as a source of solace. The intimate relationship between the characters and literary works in the text helps to facilitate thematic development of literacy. Therefore, it can be argued that the development of central themes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings depends on the depiction and development of characters.
In conclusion, this essay has discussed how Maya Angelou used the major characters of the book to facilitate its thematic development throughout the text. The development of the themes of identity, racial segregation and literacy in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings significantly depends on how major characters in the literary work are portrayed. For instance, major characters such as Maya, Momma, Bailey Johnson, and the larger black community have been used in a manner that facilitates thematic development in the literary work.
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