Authors tend to collect their inspiration in their works from their past. For an example, Sojourner Truth’s writings were influenced by African American and women’s rights, Langston Hughes’ writings were motivated by injustice during his time, and Countee Cullen’s writings were shaped by the Harlem Renaissance. Author Maya Angelou used past incidents of her life to construct her writings. The fight for civil and African-American rights in the Civil Rights Movement was an event that transpired during her time. The Civil Rights Movement was a dominant influence on the outcome of the life of Maya Angelou and her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
African Americans have been fighting for their rights ever since times dated back to slavery. The Civil Rights Movement was an accomplishment that transformed humanity. On May 17, 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education concluded that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate facilities are inherently unequal.” This case determined there would be no segregation is public schools “solely on the basis of race” (Kort). On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, an elderly African American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her bus seat to a standing white man. These events evoked the Civil Rights Movement of 1954. This movement was originally for the purpose of obtaining “equal rights for African Americans.” After the community was angered by the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black boycott took place on all Montgomery buses (Quinn 78). Although these events occurred in a peaceful attempt, violent acts were implemented in return for these marches. For an example, multiple passive marchers, including innocent children were beaten and jailed. According to Mack-Shelton, “almost a year after the boycott began, Montgomery officials reluctantly desegregated the bus system…” This was a sign of progress for the black community. This advancement towards equal rights motivated African Americans to participate in “marches, demonstrations, boycotts, pickets, and sit-ins…” that eventually resulted in successfully breaking the practice of segregation. The Civil Rights Movement also abolished racial barriers and forced legislative changes. The movement ended in 1964, creating a “sense of pride and self –esteem among…” African Americans fighting for justice (Mack-Shelton).
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, spent the majority of her childhood living in Stamps, Arkansas with her grandmother. While visiting her mother in her hometown, she was molested by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight-years-old. When she revealed who took advantage of her, the accuser was sent to jail. Shortly after his release, Angelou’s uncles murdered him. Because she thought the death of her mother’s boyfriend was her fault, she entered into a “self-imposed silence” for five years. With the encouragement of her mentor, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, she is assisted out of her speechlessness. Flowers used books as an outlet to help Angelou speak again. With her support, Angelou grew into an educated young lady. Although, at an early age in life, she came to the realization that there was a clear separation that existed between blacks and whites in her community (Graham 46). Angelou’s grandmother was her role model for understanding “the role of victim to which black children- and especially black girls- are subjected” to (Smelstor). The drive to persevere through this discrimination from her grandmother led her to become an advocate for civil rights as she matured over the years. Maya Angelou was determined to make a difference in the world by writing, and the movement was what fueled her drive. Angelou agreed to promote the Civil Rights Movement for Martin Luther King Jr., but before she was able to go south, he was assassinated. She was also scheduled to “write and organize for Malcolm X” in 1964 for the movement before his assassination (Smelstor). In addition to her assistance with King and Malcolm X, according to Kort, “Angelou served as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference…,” a civil rights organization.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings featured the life of Maya Angelou from her younger years to the age of sixteen. The book described the hardships a southern black girl endured growing up during a time of segregation. Angelou “demonstrates that her experiences of racial discrimination, rape, and numerous other victimizations did not destroy her…,” and they only shaped the way she is today (Smelstor). Angelou’s tone is appropriate for the events she includes in her dialogue. There is a serious tone, along with a helpless tone in the earlier portion of the book’s plot. As the story progresses, Angelou begins to portray a motivational tone. According to Graham, survival and freedom are some of the countless mutual themes displayed in Angelou’s writing. Both of these themes are shown with Angelou maturing and overcoming the struggles of her childhood (Smelstor).
A major symbol displayed in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is how closely the caged bird and freedom are associated. The caged bird symbolizes a young Maya Angelou trying to escape from discrimination and other victimizations. For Angelou, growing up was problematic, and all she could do was suffer through the adversities. This is analogous to how the caged bird is forced to sing since there is no way to get out of the cage. This symbol is intended to be perceived as Angelou being able to overcome her circumstances, despite her obstacles. She was able to overpower any obstacle, regardless of any hindrance, through literature. The idea of survival is portrayed in the book by emphasizing it through a gradual beginning, middle, and end (Smelstor). According to Smelstor, “If all caged birds sing together… the human race will indeed survive.” This quote explains that if everyone fighting for a shared cause fight together, they will survive and get the justice they deserve.
In conclusion, the Civil Rights Movement was a dominant influence on the outcome of the life of Maya Angelou and her poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou writes about a young, displaced teen in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and this displaced teen is her. To this day, Maya Angelou is “considered one of America’s finest contemporary poets” (Kort). Literature and history continue to remain connected by the patterns of real-life situations in literature.