Explore the representation of race in at least two texts from the course.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.” (Angelou:33) How does a populous minority become so segregated from the other that they cannot even interact with one another? Under systematic racism, discrimination menaces minorities every day, the Jim Crow Laws were set in 1877 until the mid-1960s, to purposely segregate black and whites. A system almost mirroring a dictatorship which is defined as an autocracy, a monarchy in which the government has the power to control ideas- individual thought is restricted. Autocrats stay in control by lowering education funds, limiting culture, and censoring information of individual expression. This is a pattern that repeats throughout history. A neverending cycle of control, power, money, and lust, beautifully highlighted in the 1969 poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, written by Maya Angelou. This tale stands as a work representing not only the hardships of growing up in a post-world war, racist America but also as a symbol for hope for African-American citizens. The story is about Maya, told in her own voice. Although the story is largely a journey from one location to another it is ultimately about the analogy of freedom. Another great story about racial oppression, Citizen: An American Lyric, a poem written by Claudia Rankine. In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” Maya Andalou uses the metaphor of a bird to express the themes of identity and racial confinement, while in “Citizen: An American Lyric” Rankine uses the symbol of the hood.
Firstly, in Angelou’s novel, Maya’s identity is very complexly narrated as it tackles numerous issues including what it’s like being a woman under the circumstances of racial separation. Same is the case with Rankine, who uses Serena Williams as a powerful symbol for black women in America. Racism is not the only issue in neither narrative yet it is the most controversial “Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?” Uncle Willie muttered, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.” (Angelou: 44). As a very convoluted, three-dimensional character Maya fights to become her own persona through hardships and wonder. We spectate as the young woman fights daily to do normal things with her family. The chemistry with her mother is a bittersweet one as they both have different plans for her future. Her mother attempts to educate her with a religious background but she shows no interest, “In later years I asked her if she loved me and she brushed me off with: ‘God is love. Just worry about whether you’re being a good girl, then He will love you.’ (Angelou: 85) . Her relationship with her mother is one of the most important bonds in the entire narrative also because of its authentic nature. The reader has immersed in Maya’s shoes and experiences what it’s like to be her, dealing with controversies around every corner. Although she went through tragic events growing up, she learns a lot, primarily because of the African-American women she meets. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Marguerite gets to learn from her mother and grandmother to grow as an African-American female, in the 30’s-40’s. Within the themes explored even her own sexual identity is analyzed, “I was fascinated by lesbians and I feared I was one” (Angelou: 93) Other instances include when she’s thinking that lesbians are perverts, yet get some pleasure out of the whole deal. Since this narrative is focused on her own personal experience the extent to which the character of Maya evolves is perplexing. She goes through an entire evolution as a character. Moreover, the difficulties of growing up in a segregated society are also highlighted within multiple other occasions in Rankine’s story, “It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates.” (Rankine: 65) Appearance is also a theme that matters in the context of segregation ”When I was described by our playmates as being shit color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool. And yet he loved me. (Angelou: 88) At certain moments Angelou compares her situation to slaves “This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” , showing how desperately she wants to leave Stamps, a segregated town in Arkansas (Angelou: 44) Narratives about racism often repeat themes but Angelou manages to create original content and execute it in a way that even wows the most devoted fans of civil rights. She not only uses the theme of identity but also a metaphor to symbolize the caged bird.
Secondly, in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” Maya Angelou focuses strongly on a change of character to see how racism has evolved the protagonist. Other changes include the transition from incarceration to complete freedom and moving from city to city. “To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black lifestyle, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom.” (Angelou: 72) Underneath all the discrimination and hatred, Maya is still able to grow and develop as a character. She grows up really rapidly, “The world was moving so fast, so much money was being made, so many people were dying in Guam, and Germany, that hordes of strangers became good friends overnight. Life was cheap and death entirely free.” (Angelou: 95) She moves multiple times throughout the story, including a transition from bleak Arkansas to California: “Moving from the house where the family was centered meant absolutely nothing to me. It was simply a small pattern in the grand design of our lives. (Angelou: 22) Although change is important in racial communities it is ultimately the use of the bird and the hoodie metaphor that carries both poems to success.
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Thirdly, the metaphors importantly serve as the idea of hope, more now than ever. Such is the case when “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguin, and our boys would try to be Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.” (Angelou: 40) The cage is literally the wall between a divided America. An obstacle that has to be overcome as a species but stands as a hope for a united America, one in which black and whites can coexist without any harassment. The fight for equality is inevitable in both tales and conveyed in both books by the harsh, poverty-stricken environments the authors grew up in. “Citizen” also targets an audience, almost pointing fingers at whites “because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying”, very critical of the way the system works. (Rankine: 91) Rankine’s story focuses profoundly on the format of the wording as she is also capable of conveying the message of systematic racism in America through the use of photographs; one of the key differences between these two texts. In “ Citizen” the cover depicts a disembodied hood from a generic green hoodie mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy, an artwork by David Hammons. In Angelou’s case, the analogy is used to describe how her confinement is her “cage”. She’s the bird trying to break free but due to racial dilemmas cannot retain her right. This work alongside other revolutionary African-American poets during the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes who wrote a variety of original poems during his time in New York, and Gwendolyn Brooks the author of Annie Allen a book of poetry for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in nineteen-forty-nine. An example is the Serena Williams photo “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Rankine: 33) Both authors had a similar idea of how they wanted to represent racism, yet Rankine uses microaggressions to convey the different ways of judgment throughout the book. Each powerful in their own way, and both highlighting the nature of discrimination. Additionally, other themes included in Angelou’s story that segregates minorities is the use of religion, a very prominent aspect in Afro-American culture. “It seemed that the peace of a day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect.” (Angelou: 26) More importantly, it is only Momma’s character who takes interest in this approach as Maya has no enthusiasm to be active in the Christian community. She even says “Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’ were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation.” signifying her intention to her mother. (Angelou: 42)
Lastly, Maya Angelou beautifully captures the raw environment in which she had to grow up in by using imagery and contrast: “Their eyes, language, and customs belied the white skin and proved to their dark successors that since they didn’t have to be feared” (Angelou: 78) Maya’s depictions of her hometown Stamps and its decrepit suburbs allows the reader to entirely position themselves in the shoes of Maya and immersing themselves in her gracefully constructed world. The depiction of black women during this time is prominent “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (Angelou: 68) Her evolution as a character through moving from cities depicts her inability to communicate with the other segregated half. Moving from one place to another and the ever going battle against racism and alienation is displayed through the metaphor of the bird, yet in Rankine uses rhyme and page composition to influence the reader in touching ways, “In memory of Michael Brown, In memory of…” .(Rankine: 62) In addition, “Citizen” was only released in 2014 making it a very contemporary piece, and a very prompt one. The story also explains how people don’t care about the truth, only what is thought to be true. A concept perfectly exemplified by Henry Kissinger, the former American secretary of state, elegantly captured in his own words. “It is not a matter of what’s true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true” (Kissinger: 55)
In summary, Maya Angelou beautifully captures the raw environment in which she had to grow up in while Claudia Rankine seizes the opportunity with visuals to depict something bigger. The theme of race is similarly depicted yet both in their unique style. Whether it’s the dilemma of moving from Stamps to California or the ongoing battle against racism, separation is featured through the metaphor of the bird or in Rankine’s case the black hood. In conclusion, Maya the metaphors successfully work to convey the idea of isolation via racism. Maya vividly describes her own experiences during this time period making the poem so relatable. The characters feel three-dimensional and very well developed; they’re complex in individual ways, and they take part in paramount parts throughout the narrative. Angelou and Rankine both manage to charmingly delight the audience with two stories so complexly entangled in a contemporary political society that it almost feels timeless.