I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Storm the Battlefronts

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Storm the Battlefronts

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  Maya Angelou's novel is a classic tale of growing up black in the American South in the 1930s and 40s. Even though Marguerite's and her brother Bailey's childhood and early youth are probably far from typical for the average black family of that time, the book nonetheless can be read as a parable of what it meant and still means to be a black person in an overwhelmingly white society. The story is told from a "black" point of view and is thus a more "politically correct" representation of race relationship and prejudice than Harper Lee's equally famous To Kill a Mockingbird.

The two children are moved back and forth between their parents and their grandmother "Momma," between St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the rural Southern town of Stamps, Arkansas, where they spend the bulk of their childhood. As the owner of a small shop their grandmother is rather well-off for a rural black woman. The children consequently don't suffer from any economic hardships - not even during the worst depression years. Still, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings is no story about an easy coming-of-age: Maya is permanently puzzled by the adult world. Her grandmother is extremely religious and strict, the children "should be seen but not heard," (p. 34) and she is deeply worried about their relationship to their parents. Worse still, she is raped by her mother's boyfriend while living with her in St. Louis and refuses to talk to anyone but her brother for over a year after the trial. Moreover, she often encounters "white" prejudice, rejection or indifference, when she is working for a white woman or tries to get treatment from a white dentist.

The book thus explores a wide range of timeless topics: child abuse, race relations and a lot of important general issues of adolescence such as awakening sexuality, tension between the children and their parents and friendship. Angelou basically tells us the story of her search for her place in the world - in warm and touching prose that makes it possible to identify with her problems, needs and dreams. This personal appeal and the fact that the novel touches a lot of common "black" issues make its ideal for use in the literature classroom - together with To Kill a Mockingbird (even though in a way it directs your reading of I Know.

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..) and The Invisible Man, of which I find it partly reminiscent: "The white people don't really hate us. They don't know us. How can they hate us? They are mostly scared." (p. 167)

Finally, a teacher could use both Caged Bird and Mockingbird to explore the Great Depression and the 1930s, the time when both stories take place, and the Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s, the time when both books were written. This way, you can discuss the general background of recent American history and also the future, which at the end of Angelou's autobiography according to Bailey "looks good. The Black man hasn't even begun to storm the battlefronts." (p. 223)


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