Through Their Voices She Found Her Voice: Women in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Introduction

On January 20, 1996 the President of the Federative Republic of Brazil enacted Law #9394, which was a first attempt to recover the history and contribution of Africans and African-descendants in the construction of the Brazilian nation. The law introduced the study of the history of these peoples at all levels of education. At that time, some schools and universities began to train teachers to introduce the subject in a transdisciplinary form and, therefore, several works by African and Afro-Brazilians were re-read as African in different areas of knowledge and, especially in academic settings, more theses on the culture, history and literature of these peoples were written.

Eight years later on January 9, 2003, Law #10,639 replaced the previous law, mandating the teaching of black culture in the school system, and as a result, the question of Africa in Brazilian history gained more attention from all areas of the government and education. In addition, the general population paid more attention to the discussions involved. Consequently, there was a further impetus to revisit the history and culture of Africa and African-descended peoples. In view of this, especially the African cultural production (in English, French and Portuguese) and writers of African descent (both in the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil) in various genres gained prominence in academic circles. In particular, the rapprochement between the female writers (in the United States, Brazil and Africa) expanded as it demonstrates, in a sense, the stories of everyday women which, despite being told in different languages, have many similarities. One such example is the work of the African-American author Maya Angelou. In Brazil, she is known best for her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she reared at the inauguration of American President Bill Clinton in 1993. Since then, we have seen in Brazil her participation in such films as How to Make an American Quilt and the television series Touched by an Angel; in the literary field, Angelou appeared on the scene in 1997 when the first translation of her autobiographical work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1971) was released and, since then, several comparative studies of the work in question can be found because Angelou's narrative established such a powerful mirror relation with readers in Brazil. Readers can find reciprocity in the words of the African American writer, a reciprocity, which contributes to the understanding of the role of women, especially black women, in society.

I.

Survival. This is a word that is implicit in the trajectory and settlement of the Africans who were taken to the New World, to the Americas. Victims of mercantilism, uprooted from their homeland, these people were enslaved and then taken to the United States and elsewhere, a place that wanted them as property, as a work force, but refused them citizenship.

Their humanity was denied, their culture, which included their gods, their religion and their music, was banished. But the worst and most devastating strike was made when their language, the means by which they expressed their views, beliefs and thoughts, was wiped out, for how do you say that you "are" when the web of signifiers you have always known is torn and you are placed on "water without boundaries" (Diedrich, Gates and Pedersen 17)? How do you say that you "are" in a language that is not your own once the Europeans had acquired the right over definitions? What is a person without his/her own language?

Since the beginning of slavery most of the battle over who could rule Blacks was fought by using the power of the word. Therefore Africans who witnessed the horrors of the Middle Passage, the "voyage through death" as Robert Hayden puts it, and their descendants who lived enslaved, suffered the beatings, the brutality and violence of slavery, fought not only for freedom. They fought for the right to be: the right to be a person and to be respected as such. …