Maya Angelou, born as Marguerite Johnson, was raised in a period of racial discrimination. In her early years, she experienced segregation of public areas and harassment from white people, which led to her lack of self-esteem. It was the isolated black community who helped her develop a semblance of inner strength and dignity. As Joanne Braxton views it, Angelou was "considered unattractive by the standards of her community, [so she] developed her intellect instead." (86). Angelou also experienced the tragedy of rape when she was only eight years old. Maya Angelou's writings reflect her struggles with rape and the racism that she grew up with.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's first autobiography. It is told as a detailed fiction story, yet it asserts the truth and emotions of her childhood. Joanne Braxton comments that it is told in two views, one as a mature woman and the other as a child. "The mature woman looks back on her bittersweet childhood, yet her authorial voice retains the power of a child's vision. The child's point of view governs Angelou's principle of selection, and when the mature narrator steps in her tone is purely personal" (Braxton 89). Caged Bird is obviously well-written with understood feelings and identities.
"In Angelou's Caged Bird, negritude and femininity make contradictory, irreconcilable demands on Ritie's [Marguerite's] sense of personal identity" (Henke 101). It tells of the many struggles Angelou has dealt with throughout her life, such as her struggle with being black in a time of segregation. Another struggle was that of her rape by her mother's live-in boyfriend when she was only eight. It was known to have traumatized her as a child. "…Isn't the act of rape by a trusted adult so assaultive upon an eight-year-old's life that it leaves a wound which can never be healed?" (O'Neale 67). Angelou explains the rape:
"Then there was pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot." (65)
Her words of the description of the rape are poignant. Ernece B. Kelly comments, "Her metaphors are strong and right; her similes less often so. But these lapses in poetic style are undeniably balanced by the insight she offers into the effects of social conditioning on the life-style and self-concept of a Black child growing up in the rural South of the 1930's" (114).
In the time period of Angelou's childhood, 1930-40, discrimination was common. There were segregated schools, bathrooms, and public areas. Incidents of hatred and racism are also included in the book. One tells of three young girls ridiculing Maya's grandmother. She called it "the most painful and confusing experience I have ever had with my grandmother.":
Before the [white] girls got to the porch I heard their laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking stove. I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes. They came finally to stand on the ground in front of Momma. At first they pretended seriousness. Then one of them wrapped her right arm in the crook of her left, pushed out her mouth and started to hum. I realized that she was aping my grandmother. Another said, "Naw Helen, you ain't standing like her. This here's it." Then she lifted her chest, folded her arms and mocked that strange carriage that was Annie Henderson [grandmother]. Another laughed, "Naw you can't do it. Your mouth ain't pooched out enough. It's like this…."
Then they were moving out the yard …They bobbed their heads and shook their slack behinds and turned, one at a time:
"Bye, Annie." , "Bye, Annie." , "Bye, Annie."
Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, "Bye, Miz Helen, 'bye Miz Ruth, 'bye Miz Eloise…'
She stood another whole song through and then opened the screen door to look down on me crying in rage. She looked until I looked up. Her face was a brown moon that shone on me. She was beautiful. Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand, but