In the world Maya grows up in, beauty is narrowly defined as being white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Maya believes as a child that being black means being ugly, and thinks of her appearance as a "black ugly dream" that she will wake out of.
Romance vs. reality
Seen in the lives of the cotton pickers of Stamps, and of Maya too; they become idealistic and happy, only to be cut down by the harshness of their lives. Young Maya often only thinks of the beauty and goodness of things; but even her reveries are interrupted, as a harder reality breaks up illusions.
Whether prejudice is a result of race or appearance, it definitely has an effect on the lives of Maya and her family, and on Uncle Willie doubly. Maya and her friends and relatives will always be subject to prejudice merely because they are black; Uncle Willie has to endure even more hardship, since people are also wary of him since he is crippled. Prejudice is a difficult thing to overcome, and Maya must battle it in order to build her self-esteem.
Influence of childhood
Angelou shows how the knowledge and experience gained from childhood affects the rest of life, as the events she portrays in the book, however small or seemingly insignificant, shape her perceptions later.
In Stamps, segregation means social, economic, and political inferiority for the black citizens of the town. The policies of segregation basically set the boundaries on their lives, assuring that they will never be able to make ends meet or gain well-paying jobs, or be able to mix with white people as equals when they are in the town.
Very important to Maya growing up, though not every family bond yields the affection she needs. Her relationship with Bailey is probably the most vital family tie in her life, getting her through her childhood; the degrees of motherly support given to her by her birth mother and Momma Henderson are also vital to her upbringing.
Vitally important to Momma Henderson and the black community of Stamps, religion keeps them going in the face of tough times. Maya is raised with a strong sense of religion, which serves as her moral guide; however, she is enough of a realist to see how people use it to help themselves feel better about adversity, and doesn't believe this is a completely good thing.
Feelings of abandonment by their parents encroach on Maya and Bailey's happiness; after their father comes and leaves, and they are sent back to Stamps from St. Louis, they feel like they have been abandoned for reasons that are their own fault. This leads to both of the children searching for the love of a mother figure and father figure, and varying degrees of success in soothing their feelings of being unwanted.
As a girl, Maya sees her gender as very limiting; she thinks she can't be heroic like all the boys in her comics, just because she is a girl. She endures rape and a lot of limitations on her behavior because she is female; in parts of the narrative, being female is just as limiting for Maya as being black, and seems to be something to struggle against rather than embrace.
For a while, Maya feels imprisoned by both her race and her gender. She is trapped in an ugly' black body, as well as a female body, and feels that these two things mean she will never be beautiful or heroic like her comic book figures. She also allows herself to be imprisoned by muteness, until she is finally broken out of this prison with the help of the radiant Mrs. Flowers.
is an important theme in Maya's story while she chooses not to speak, and withdraws willingly from people. She decides to stop being active and enjoying her life, and surrenders herself to silence and sullenness. She also resigns herself to the bad, mundane things in life, and takes little joy in the things around her.
At times, the black community of Stamps engages in feelings of self-righteousness in order to make themselves feel better about their inferiority; they declare that white people are immoral and that they are more loved by God for their struggles and trials, and become content in this. This self-righteousness pacifies them about inequality, and although it helps them deal with their troubles, it does not help them to see reality.
The book is very concerned with questions of motherhood, as Maya's mother and Momma are definitely crucial figures in her childhood. The novel also ends with Maya herself becoming a mother, and also gaining a sense of peace and fulfillment from her relationship with her mother, as well as being a mother herself.
Maya faces blatant instances of racism at several points during her story; at her graduation ceremony, when she goes to the Stamps dentist, and when she applies for the streetcar job are the most prominent examples. Racism is institutionalized and seems overwhelming to Maya, but she is finally able to make process and beat the system when she gets her streetcar job.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Mrs. Flowers says that Maya needs to talk. She believes that spoken language is essential.... that spoken words are more effective than words written on paper. Mrs. Flowers to observe the people around her, and to go home with the books she's...