Maya Angelou’s real life experiences of racism | Sunday Observer

Maya Angelou’s real life experiences of racism

12 June, 2021

How much effect can a poem exert on society? Can the poet’s own experience have an impact on the reader? Well, yes it can. A poem created through the poet’s own life experience can make a huge implicit impact on the reader as well as on society too.

Maya Angelou’s most famous work, “I know why the caged bird sings” is a great example. First published in 1983, it plots a storyline related to two birds, one is caged whereas the other is free. The work metaphorically expresses racism in America. It focuses on the caged bird rather than the free bird. Maya’s work can also relate to today’s society since racism is one of the top topics in the town.

Angelou, is a distinguished American poet born on April 4th 1928. Her other works include ‘The Heart of a Woman’, ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ etc. Her primary work is regarded as ‘I Know why the Caged Bird sings’ comprising her life until the age of 17, the ballad earned her worldwide recognition and acclaim.

Angelou’s honours include the Pulitzer Prize and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She was presented the Presidential medal of freedom by President Obama in 2011.

Her writings mainly focus on her breaking the barriers of being a Black American woman, her skillfulness in writing is often praised by critics as powerful but also smooth at the same time. Some even believe Maya invented her own genre of literature by her poems and stories, however, it can be said she is a phenomenal writer that changed the course of history, although during her first years her books were banned by US Libraries.

Maya was successful not only as a poetess but also as an actress and singer. She passed away peacefully at 86, leaving behind her memories.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is based on the poet’s real life experiences of racism, until the age of 17.

The poem:
The free Bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
With fearful trill
Of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
And he names the sky his own

But the caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
With fearful trill
Of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom . . .

– Maya Angelou

White Americans

In the first phrase the writer emphasizes the free bird, metaphorically symbolizing the white skinned people that have freedom to do whatever they want. In the ballad this bird can move freely in the sky, it floats, “leaps on the back of the wind”, independently.

At the end it even “dares to claim the sky”. It simply shows how the White Americans used to have everything while Blacks went without most essentials, clearly aimed towards the White Americans, who criticize black skinned to be “dirty or unclean”.

This type of racism took place in America during the early stages of the country’s history. Whites used to have high status and privilege to do anything or to own anything, in contrast to the Black people who were always limited by rules and laws. Maya expresses how cut off she felt from the ordinary world.

The starting stanza may not seem to have much weight, but it does contain a deep meaning when compared to the next stanza. The next set of seven lines discusses injustice, intimidation of Blacks due to skin colour, it also brings out the frustration and segregation that goes within the minds of Black people.

When the free bird rejoices in the freedom it has, the caged bird worries regarding its miserable state. Even though it intends to move out from the prison, it can’t due to the barriers put up by the white Americans.

The second stanza uses several powerful words like “Stalks” meaning walking slowly, pointing out the state of the poor animal. “Seldom” pulls out the meaning rarely seen. This portrays a different background from the free bird.

“Bars of rage” creates a complicated atmosphere with the use of literal language.

‘Rage’ guides the reader to a conclusion of ‘Hate’, meaning that this unfair nature and action eventually picks up ‘hate’ at the end. These phrases raise the poem to its paradox.

The third stanza completely gives priority to the Blacks grief in the lost unfair world. It mentions “things unknown” it directly refers to things about freedom, previously it senses “fearful trill” embracing the fact how scared it is about its own future, which immediately resembles the “fearful trill” black Americans endure every single day about their future.

Not very harmonic

Although the bird’s tune isn’t very harmonic it contains the willingness, hopes of a bright future in the near future. The voice of the bird spreads far over hills, as it sings of the injustice faced, and condemning society.

Overall, the stanza emphasizes how bad racism is for the Black people, who were in their own world but were subjected to work as slaves for other people due to the revolution in the world.

Maya’s own experiences come with the unpleasant way she was treated by the outer world. Her life wasn’t an easy one, she had to work several odd jobs during the start due to discrimination.

The jobs included Fry cook, Nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member etc. The adjective “Caged” highlights the way her opportunities of expressing herself in public were limited.

Angelou’s words are powerful enough to give a person the hardship Black people went through in the past. In the past, Blacks often underwent public humiliation as well. They weren’t privileged even to sit in public transport, Black American children were too prohibited from eating in school cafeterias, besides this they weren’t allowed to mix with White Americans at all.

Discrimination due to skin colour is very intriguing because of the tension, stress and pressure on the victims.

The poem’s next two twin verses compare and contrast what the free bird has and what the caged bird doesn’t have. It is very disturbing to listen to the agony of the bird.

Unlike the free bird who “thinks about another breeze”, the caged bird stands on a “Grave of dreams”. The poetess uses two unusual words “Grave” and “Dream” as a combination to fulfil the dead thoughts of the Caged Bird.

It highlights how the achievements have died out, meaning that dreams are dead for Blacks. This again paints a picture regarding a prisoner, it is explicit that the dreams of the free world are taken to the graves. Even though the free bird may see the world freely, the contrasting bird sees the world through “bars of rage” creating an illustration of the amount of hatred Black people have in their actions and feelings.

Big difference

In these twin verses there is a great difference shown among the two birds. For the free bird “…he names the sky his own…” while for the caged bird “…he opens his throat to sing…”.

The variable amount of freedom is shown through these phrases. The only medium that Negro’s can use to point out their grief is verbal communication, but in contrast the others are allowed to use any. From the whole tragic poem, it can be said that these verses create an ultimate paradox, with alignment to the theme of “Racism”.

Angelou next uses a chorus repetition as the last stanza. She uses the prior stanza of “The caged bird sings…”, again briefing the tragedy, conflict-filled lives of Black Americans. It also reflects upon how Angelou strived through all the racism to become a well-known actress, poetess as well as an activist. The presentation of the image of the caged bird is drastically emotional to the viewer, in the last stanza. Angelou reflects that she couldn’t think straight due to the compression from external forces in society. Angelou’s poem, “I Know why the caged Bird sings” proves the thin line it has with the theme of “Racism” creating a wide open path to people to see what the people have suffered along the past years.

Metaphorical symbols

The poem has been praised for the use of metaphorical symbols, contrast and also visual imagery. It is also recognized as an anthem for the Blacks. The importance of the poem may not only seem to be about Maya’s life but, it may include the lives of Martin Luther King who gave leadership to these people, Rosa Parks who stood up for equal rights, Nelson Mandela the unforgettable hero of the Black Americans, President Obama the sweet success of Presidency for the Black Americans. Critics believe that even though this poem was a part of a biography, it represents the community. In the world we can see a lot of racism, the criticism of humans due to skin colour needs to stop, if not today then maybe tomorrow. In the world we live in, we can experience the brutality of society and racism is one such topic.

The above poem may not only concentrate on one poem but it may be for political discrimination, gender discrimination, poverty and terrorism.

Victims of these may live with hatred which may result in a lot of destruction later on. Therefore, prevention is better than cure. Love is the only answer, no person must condone hatred. The inspiration for discrimination comes in different ways, but if those paths are blocked the world would be a better place. It’s time that discrimination of human due to silly things stop. Humans are regarded as the animals with ‘high intelligence’ but it seems that we are the stupidest of all. Discrimination simply needs a full stop.

There seems to be no space in the topics of poetry and racism. Poetry is a medium used to express the grief, sorrow, sadness of every victim of racism. Besides, the impact of the poem is great. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou is only one such example, while there are many more.