Oppression in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Oppression in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Oppression in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou


In the process of compiling the literary works I intended to include in this project, I began to notice a common thread that connected the works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry that I generally choose to read. That common tie that binds these books together is that they all seem to center, in one form or another, around the theme of oppression. Perhaps this is because I have some deep psychological need to diffuse the power struggles I experience within myself by gleaning insight from the pages of someone else’s experience. Or, perhaps it is merely because I have a predisposition to “root for the underdog”. Regardless of the reason, be it simple or complex, almost everything I read seems to engage a “David and Goliath” scenario.

Take for example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. There is no doubt in my mind that the mental institution that comprises the primary setting of the narrative is intended as a metaphor of societal oppression. This symbolic novel relays the story of an inmate standing up against the powerful forces that operate a psychiatric hospital, but it represents much more than just a classic case of “man versus the establishment”. The questions raised by Kesey are almost as chilling as his descriptive tales of inmate abuse. Kesey compelled me to ponder just how thin the line is that separates insanity from sanity, and treatment from control. Representing a heroic struggle of personality against an institution of mindless conformity, I found “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to be one powerful piece of literature.

Similarly, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, which I first read the summer after I graduated high school, is a tale of oppression that translates into a deeply moving novel chronicling the ups and downs of a black family in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A myriad of historical and social issues are addressed, including race relations in the pre-civil rights south, segregated schools, sexual abuse, patriotism and religion. Autobiographical in nature, this tumultuous story centers around Marguerite Johnson, affectionately called "Maya", and her coast-to-coast life experiences. From the simple, backwards town of Stamps, Arkansas to the high-energy city life of San Francisco and St. Louis, Maya is assaulted by prejudice in almost every nook and cranny of society, until she finally learns to overcome her insecurities and be proud of who she is.

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Racial oppression is also the primary theme of In The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. There is no more credible documentation of this time in history, or any other for that matter, than an actual first-hand account. Robinson offers an insightful direct account of her experiences as both a black woman and as a Civil Rights activist. Robinson had experienced an incident similar to that of Rosa Parks in which she absentmindedly sat at the front of a nearly empty bus, then ran off in tears when the bus driver screamed at her for doing so. Robinson was not however, weak, by any stretch of the imagination. The incident only made her stronger and more determined to reverse the injustices which were hindering the advancement of an entire race of people.

Political change is also by and large, a derivative of some variety of oppression. In Citizen Governance: Leading American Communities into the 21st Century, Richard C. Box provides a model for improved local governance, utilizing his extensive background as a professional in local government as a blueprint for his perceptions. The intent of his book is twofold: Box’s first goal is to illustrate the diverse functions held by citizens, public practitioners and elected officials, gleaning ideals rooted in American political theory and public administration theory to authenticate his views. The second is to offer his perceptions of how these assignments can be redirected towards helping citizens become more active and energetic participants in local governance. Box believes, as I do, that people who allow themselves to be oppressed by refusing to take advantage of their rights as citizens need to be sufficiently inspired to encourage change, but have not been instilled with the c onfidence they need to believe in their own power.

Religious oppression is another form of subjugation, as is gender oppression. Both of these elements can be seen in the poetry of my favorite poet, Anne Bradstreet. In a time when Puritan literary works were based almost solely on the purpose of moral instruction, Anne Bradstreet pioneered the concept of weaving personal feelings into the moralistic threads of poetic verse. Intrinsically, however moral righteousness and honest human emotion are contradictory. Therefore, Anne's voice of Puritan faith often conflicted with her personal experiences and perceptions. The contrast between Anne's deeply embedded moralistic ideals and her emotional reactions to the harsh realities of her personal traumas and failures is apparent throughout the majority of her 17th century lyric poetry.
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