Breaking out of the Cage: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou

By Saunders, James Robert | Hollins Critic, October 1991 | Go to article overview

Breaking out of the Cage: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou


Saunders, James Robert, Hollins Critic


In his seminal work, Black Autobiography in America (1974), Stephen Butterfield establishes the existence of a black autobiographical tradition that has its roots in the American slave narrative, a genre "so powerful, so convincing a testimony of human resource, intelligence, endurance, and love in the face of tyranny, that, in a sense, it sets the tone for most subsequent black American writing." Acknowledging the slave narrative form as an essential base, Butterfield goes on to specify certain characteristics as being consistent across the spectrum of slave narratives and on into the twentieth century, influencing such relatively modern works as Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) and Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945). There is, in all of these works, the initial instance of resistance, a denial of the then existing caste system. Of equal importance is the struggle for education, often in the midst of difficult circumstances. That education is sometimes formal as in the case of Booker T. Washington who attended Hampton Institute. At other times, it is informal as with Frederick Douglass who, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), recounts having been secretly tutored by his slavemaster's wife.

It is, furthermore, Butterfield's contention that a physical movement between geographical regions has been part of that literary tradition, a given in slave narratives where virtually all of the authors first had to escape southern slavery and then make their way north before being in a position to record the events of their lives. Such geographical movement has been particularly important in the life and autobiographies of the artist Maya Angelou, described by Butterfield as one who "does not submit tamely to the cage. She is repeatedly thrust into situations where she must act on her own initiative to save herself and thereby learns the strength of self-confidence." Butterfield here makes specific reference to Angelou's first autobiographical installment, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970); however, it actually will be several autobiographical volumes later before the confidence Butterfield refers to evolves into its fullest dimensions.

So much of Angelou's first volume shows her to be the tossed-about victim of circumstance. She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. However, at the age of three, she finds herself being shuttled, along with her older brother Bailey, to Stamps, Arkansas, where her paternal grandmother takes up the task of raising her through her formative years. As though it is not enough that she is the offspring of a shattered marriage, she has to live those early years under the tenets of segregation. In Caged Bird, the author comments "Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin' Switch, Georgia; Hang "Em High, Alabama; Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive." The future writer resides in a place where, as critic Myra McMurry has noted, "the caged condition affects almost everyone in her world."

This first autobiography provides detailed testimony to the daily insults visited upon members of Angelou's extended family as well as neighboring blacks who work hard picking cotton, never to get ahead or even see beyond their debilitating financial situations. While her grandmother is indeed the proud owner of a local general store, even that matriarch suffers insults delivered by young, poor white girls who insist on addressing her by her first name, Annie. That grandmother is further outraged when a dentist, to whom she had lent money when he was in danger of losing his practice, now refuses to examine her granddaughter and adamantly proclaims, 'Td rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's."

After Marguerite and Bailey have lived in Stamps several years, their father appears one day, giving them the impression that he will take them back with him to California. In actuality, he is merely picking them up for deposit with their mother, Vivian Baxter, who was, at the time, still residing in St. …

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