The history of African-Americans begins with slavery. African people were first brought to British North America as indentured servants in 1619, where they were not recognized as citizens, rather, as a commodity. The laws enacted at the time ensured the continuation of the restrictive social order, which was based on a racial hierarchy which dictated that black people were born into servitude. Hence, those born into slavery were not given the same legal, economic or social status as their white counterparts. Following the American Civil War, in which slaves were deemed to be free nation-wide and emancipation proclamation, the racist legacy of slavery continued to persist. In such, it spurred several counter-movements of resistance including the Underground Railroad, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March, and most recently, the Black Lives Matter Movement. Throughout the movements, generations of black leaders, artists and writers emerged to help shape the character and identity of a nation, including activists and writers Maya Angelou and Angie Thomas.
Maya Angelou’s novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Angie Thomas’s book The Hate U Give (2017) were written to illuminate the institutional racism that African-Americans continue to be subjected to. Following the assassination of close friend and renowned civil rights activist, Angelou was inspired to write her novel. Similarly, Thomas wrote her novel in response to the Oscar Grant case, where a 22-year-old African-American man was fatally shot in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. She, like Angelou, is an ardent critic of institutionalised and systemic racism in America, and her writing explores the power dynamics within that culture.
Both authors use marginalised characters to explore the nature of prejudice in America, and they engage their audience through various techniques in order to unpack themes of racism, gender, power, identity and struggle. Angelou and Thomas both explore the importance of the emancipatory function of education and literature for their protagonists. Furthermore, the use of 1st person perspective within both texts is impactful on the audience’s engagement with the context as it allows for them to have a better understanding of the protagonists reality and the reality of many black women in America. Finally, the use of the motif of a strong black woman as an archetypal role allows for the author to explore a different narrative than what is usually written for a black woman. Angelou’s semi-autobiographical contrasts Thomas’ fictionalised accounts, however, both texts expose societies misogynistic and racist views of black women.
The motif of the strong black woman as an archetypal role model character is seen throughout both texts. The authors explore the profound and complex identity of a black woman living in America through use of characterisation and their function in relation to the protagonist and their journey. Instead of perpetuating the negative stereotypes and connotations associated with black women (angry, loud and ‘ghetto’), the authors of both texts honestly portray the struggles they face in society and how they overcome them with dignity and poise. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) the young Maya continuously struggles with issues of insecurity and ostracisation, she is however, surrounded by numerous strong black female role models within her family and community to help guide her. Momma’s successful effort in keeping the store open throughout The Great Depression is an evident testament to the enormous dedication and determination that Momma has despite the racist violence and segregation of Stamps, especially despite the severe economic downturn. Likewise, within The Hate U Give (2017) Starr is continuously emboldened by family and friends to not succumb to societal pressures and instead speak up for herself, following the traumatic death of her close friend. An important character who evidently displays such qualities can be found in Lisa Carter, who consistently acts as an invaluable source to Starr of the importance of empathy and understanding.
“Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right”. The Hate U Give (Chapter 9, pg. 103)
Lisa’s model for judging people, based on love and understanding provides an important examination to how society judges black women on stereotypes. The texts inform the reader of the ways in society has continuously pushed the narrative of African-American women being weak, despite their circumstances, due to the little platform they are given in terms of social standing and political efficacy. The authors in turn heavily critique societies misogynistic and racists view of African-American women, who should be valued and embraced instead of victimised at any given opportunity. The role model is used to critique the narrow and ignorant view of black women in society – they are community leaders and inspirational characters, especially in the context of a racist society. They are very much vital characters that help shape the identity of the protagonists as they show the virtues of resistance, persistence and struggle against institutional/systemic oppression. As such the authors additionally use the means of language, literature and education as a form of emancipation for the protagonist throughout the novel.
Within both texts, the theme of language, literature and education are intertwined throughout the protagonist life as form of emancipation. Both Angelou and Thomas strongly convey how language and literature are able to encapsulate the protagonists experience and help them overcome the struggles in which they are facing. Throughout her childhood the young Maya Angelou is made to feel insecure about herself due to the prevalence of racial and sexual violence within her environment. Her subsequent relationship with Mrs. Flowers becomes one of the most formative in the novel as it allows for Maya to learn how to read, memorize and appreciate poetry. Maya is able to find refuge in fiction, poetry and language itself as one of the few things that remains consistent in her life are books. Hence, the “singing” of the caged bird becomes analogous to the refuge that Angelou finds in language and poetry. In contrast, Thomson uses the protagonist to showcase the importance and different ways in which language, literature and education can be used as a form of expression. The Hate U Give (2017) uses language as a tool for education, justice and speaking truth to power. Several scenarios within the novel are made so that the initially hesitant Starr develops confidence in her voice and comes to the full realisation of how her voice is one of the most powerful tools she possesses. Though the novels were written in different era’s in which the protagonists’ lives were filled with violence, the authors emphasis how language, literature and education can become the ultimate means of salvation and a spur of meaningful societal change. The audience is able to understand the importance of language, literature and education for the protagonists as both authors have portrayed their novels to be in the perspective of first person.
Through use of the first-person perspective, the audience is able to see how the character thinks and experiences the world around them. This is particularly effective within these two texts as countless people would not have experienced the lives of the protagonists in both I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and The Hate U Give (2017). Therefore, the texts are more engaging to a diverse audience as it allows for the audience to be sympathetic of the protagonist’s situation, therefore though it does target a female audience, factors such as age and race are not of great importance. As I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is an autobiography, the narrative is told within the perspective of a young Maya Angelou. Though the novel begins when Maya was only 3, the audience is forced to read between the lines, which challenges the audience to engage with the novel and consider the underlying themes of the text. However, the text does pair the perspectives of a young and adult Maya Angelou as there are details in the text that are added to make the novel flow efficiently. Through the pairing of the two, it enables the reader to experience the world that Angelou experienced without losing the deep ruminations of a wise and experienced adult. The use of first person throughout the autobiography is an important aspect as it allows for the focus to be sheerly on her and how the actions and events in the novel shape and form the emotional and physical aspects of the protagonist. This occurs as Angelou enables the audience to hear all her thoughts in a conversational manner due to the first-person present tense that allows for her writing style to portray an authentic voice that connects with her audience. In such the audience is therefore able to be more understanding of the nature of an African-American women perspective in the world and just how unjust it is.
”If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Prologue, pg. 4)
On the contrary, whilst The Hate U Give (2017) is also written in the perspective of first-person, as the genre of the book is fictional, it does not offer as much depth or detail compared to that of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Thomson, more so offers commentary and insight into the way in which events have affected Starr. Thomas is able to capture the biased portrayal of ‘thugs’ and ‘the hood’ and the way in which. As Starr struggles with code-switching, Thomas is also able to wove code-switching dialogue throughout the novel to show convey the difference in how Starr acts when she is both at home and at school, staying in control of the detail of the setting and the detailed inner thoughts of Starr as a character. In doing so, Thomas allows for the audience to understand the multifaceted personality and emotions of the protagonist. The narrative in which Thomas uses for the novel also offers a steady gaze at white complacency whilst still focusing on the black protagonist with familiarity and understanding.
Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” The Hate U Give (Chapter 5 pg. 50)