Racism is deep-rooted issue that has been around since the early days of American society. From the moment plantation owners brought Africans to America to become slaves to the institution of Jim Crow Laws, up until today, racism has defined American society. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is her personal narrative that records the first years of her life which is defined by her experience as a black girl in the South. Angelou’s book sheds light on how racism affects a person’s whole being. Although I am aware of the racism in America, reading Angelou’s book made me realize just how deep and pervasive racism is, and continues to be. This reaction paper is not so much a reaction to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings but on the racism of our country.
Angelou lived during the time of segregation—when it was legal to refuse service to Black people. White people thought themselves superior to black people simply due to the differences in their skin color and bone structure so they did not want to be associated or interact with them. Angelou recounts having to cross the street so they do not walk past white people on the street and calling them “miss,” “missus,” or “mister.” One incident with a doctor struck me the most. According to Angelou, her mama brought her once to the dentist and the receptionist—a white girl—shut the door on them. She waited until the dentist came out, but when he finally did, all he said was “my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a n—‘s” (Angelou 189). Incidents like this are often depicted in literature and movies but reading about it from a person’s autobiography carries a different weight. Angelou’s needs were not a matter of life and death but refusing to treat anyone should be unthinkable for anyone in the medical field. Incidents like this, which is not uncommon at all as it appears, is reveals the kind of people that comprise American society. What type of society prioritizes its prejudices over the value of another person’s life?
The gravity of racism of the time is magnified by Angelou’s choice to depict it through the eyes of a young child. Although the character of Maya is innocent, it is evident that she is already aware of the racism of white people. Even as a child, she understood that her family had to live on one side of town with all the other black people while the white people lived on the other side (Angelou 25-26). White people thought themselves superior to black people simply due to the differences in their skin color and bone structure so they did not want to be associated and live near black people. Still, her innocence rises up in statements like “the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife weren’t considered folks. They were white folks” (Angelou 26). Even in her tender age, she understood not just that white people held themselves superior than black people, but also how absurd it all is. To her, white people are just people or “folks” just like them. This truth is so simple and so natural, yet so many white people refuse to accept it. In fact, history tells us that white people resorted to violence and murder each time they were forced to acknowledge and treat black people as humans.
Another great point that Angelou touched on in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is religion. In the book, she talks about how she, or Maya, believes that only black people will inherit the kingdom of God with the exception of a few white people. She believes that she, and all the black people, will be rewarded in heaven for the sufferings they endured on earth, while the white people who treated them poorly would be punished (Angelou 120). At first, I was surprised that someone, even a child, would think this way, but I realized that this type of thinking is not unique to Angelou’s character. White people, many conservative Christians, believe that they will go to heaven for being Christian while everyone else, especially gay people and Muslims, will burn in hell. This is at the same time the result and feeds misinformation and ignorance in the US. With Angelou, such manner of thinking is quite understandable. She, and her ancestors, had gone through so much inhumane suffering, and the only way to justify it is with the promise of salvation in the afterlife.
Today, in the 21st century, racism is still very much present. However, it looks different now, but no less painful for those on the receiving end. Racism and segregation are no longer allowed by laws, but racism seems to be embedded in the very foundations of our society. Having grown in a large city where people considered themselves progressive and would condemn any blatant manifestation of racism. However, I witnessed a black man who not only works hard but excels in what he does be passed up for promotion several times over the years. Although it was not explicitly stated, it was clear that he was passed up because of his skin color. I am sure that he is not the only one who experienced this. Our government even had to pass laws and policies—Affirmative Action—to end discrimination in jobs. Even with such a program in place, black people and other minority groups still have to go through the hole of a needle to be acknowledged for the work they have done. Worse, there are still news of white people calling out slurs, making inappropriate jokes, or humiliating people of color. These experiences may not be life-threatening at the moment but they are extremely damaging.
American society has a long way to go in terms of treating people with respect and dignity. Angelou is right in saying that racism is not innate—it is learned through years of indoctrination. People need to recognize the truth that we are all humans, and that our skin color is of little importance. We are all different, but that does not make one group of people superior and another inferior. Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings shows us how damaging racism is, how it not only affects a person’s external circumstances but also his/her being. Racism does not bring anything good to the table. It brings only pain, violence, and misplaced hatred. In the end, we are all human and we should treat everyone as such.
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Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, New York: Random House, 1969. https://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_Full_Text_PDF