Note: This post contains sensitive content!
One of the trickiest things about teaching literature is the ‘appropriateness’ of text selection.
I’m not sure how prudish schools are these days (and this could differ vastly across countries and cultures), but while most teachers would cringe at the idea of discussing sex and rape with teenage students, they’re often asked to teach literary works that contain these same sensitive, adult topics.
Does the veneer of figurative language, then, make the thematically ‘inappropriate’ more palatable?
There is, of course, a strong case to be made for ‘sensitive books’ to be taught in classrooms, if only because engaging with literature is all about understanding humanity in its entirety.
Puritanical censorship, for all its good intentions, has no place in authentic learning.
Introducing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical novel published in 1969, is one example of these ‘sensitive, but widely taught’ texts. From the GCSE and A-Levels to the IB and AP curricula, this book is a regular on ‘recommended books’ lists.
(By the way, in my post on the poetry of oppression, I analyse Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ alongside the British Guyanese poet John Agard’s ‘Checking Out Me History’ – another GCSE favourite.)
What’s interesting, then, is that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn’t an easy book to read, much less teach.
Its difficulty lies not in the complexity of its language or the inaccessibility of its ideas, but in the rawness of its human presentation, delivered through the honesty of a voice which straddles childhood and adolescence.
As an autobiographical novel, it’s about Angelou’s own childhood (among many other things), but it’s arguably not a ‘children’s book’, as the protagonist Maya recalls growing up with the trauma of abandonment and rape.
In the #MeToo era, more women in the first world are now able to speak out against sexual victimisation, but this – to a large extent – remains a privilege that’s only open to those who have the socio-economic upper hand.
And for a Southern Black girl living in early 20th century America, this sort of privilege is a distant pipe dream.
It’s upsetting to think that those without power are always the first to be targeted for exploitation and oppression, as predators are prone to take advantage of the powerless’ fear and lack of confidence.
Part of what makes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings so impactful is the way Angelou charts her personal growth by swinging the pendulum of power dynamics throughout the narrative, as Marguerite (the narrator and protagonist) moves past her identity as a rape survivor in small town Arkansas to become a strong, empowered woman and the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco.
Close reading the most painful section in the novel
For some students, one of the most puzzling questions about the book concerns Maya’s response to her childhood trauma.
In Chapters 11 and 12, Maya is first molested, then raped, by Mr Freeman, her mom’s one-time boyfriend, but her response to his violations is psychologically complex.
Most (if not all) readers are likely to feel outrage and indignation from reading about Maya’s rape, and yet, we face the task of understanding Maya’s relative lack of outrage and indignation after what’s happened to her.
For one, why does it seem like she craves Mr Freeman’s intimacy after he first touches her on the family bed?
And why does she ‘lie’ about what Mr Freeman did at the court hearing for the rape case? Most curiously, why does she feel so guilty about an episode in which she was the victim?
To unpack the emotional and psychological complexity behind Maya’s actions, let’s close read two key moments in the novel.
How “it” all began – Chapter 11: “It didn’t move”
In Chapter 11, the narrator Marguerite recounts what happened to her one night when she felt something on her leg while sleeping in the same bed with her mom and Mr Freeman – a habit she acquired from having too many nightmares sleeping alone.
One morning [mother] got out of bed for an early errand, and I fell asleep again. But I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg. It was too soft to be a hand, and it wasn’t the touch of clothes. Whatever it was, I hadn’t encountered the sensation in all the years of sleeping with Momma. It didn’t move, and I was startled too. I turned my head a little to the left to see if Mr Freeman was awake and gone, but his eyes were open and both hands were above the cover. I knew, as if I had always known, it was his “thing” on my leg.
In the first paragraph, the recurrence of the non-human pronoun – “it” – draws immediate attention to the inhumane, beastly nature of Mr Freeman’s actions. It adds to the characterisation of Mr Freeman as an animal predator, one that “didn’t move”, but had its “eyes open” as if observing a prey with lustful hunger. As its “hands [hover] above the cover”, the narrator notes the presence of its “thing”, which marks out its territory of attack.
Behaving more like a monster than a man, Mr Freeman ‘morphs’ into a beast with a brief, but important, shift in pronoun: ‘he’, in the moment, becomes no more than an ‘it’.
He said, “Just stay right here, Ritie, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” I wasn’t afraid, a little apprehensive, maybe, but not afraid. Of course I knew that lots of people did “it” and they used their “things” to accomplish the deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to anybody. Mr Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand between my legs. He didn’t hurt, but Momma drilled into my head: “Keep your legs closed, and don’t let nobody see your pocketbook.”
“It”, however, also functions as a euphemism in Maya’s reference to those who “did ‘it’” by “us[ing] their ‘things’ to accomplish the deed”. The fact that indirect reference is necessary suggests the shame associated with discussions of sex in Maya’s community.
This notion is reinforced by Momma’s metaphor of the “pocketbook”, which implies a woman’s clitoris. But as with so many issues, manufactured silence and suppressed speech are often the taproot of human tragedy.
For those who aren’t comfortable with sexual references, feel free to skip the next paragraph –
“Now, I didn’t hurt you. Don’t get scared.” He threw back the blankets and his ‘thing’ stood up like a brown ear of corn. He took my hand and said, “Feel it.” It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die. Ghost stories revealed how people who died wouldn’t let go of whatever they were holding. I wondered if Mr Freeman died holding me how I would ever get free. Would they have to break his arms to get me loose?
Here, the irony in Angelou’s choice of domestic similes for the phallic organ (“like a brown ear of corn” and “like the insides of a freshly killed chicken”) is worth considering for a deeper understanding of Maya’s inner conflict.
Corn and chicken – staple foods of the American South and sustenance for daily life – are compared to the male procreative (but also transgressive) organ, the possible idea being that the gulf between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ isn’t as wide as one might think, and that perfectly natural things could lead to evil ends if fuelled by bad intentions.
Meanwhile, the graphic brutality of a “freshly killed chicken” foreshadows Maya’s violent rape by Mr Freeman in the next chapter.
Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up.
With Mr Freeman’s detumescence comes Maya’s dawning awareness of what just happened.
Her comment – “Then came the nice part” – is one that drips with painful irony: as readers, we understand that the word “nice” reeks of sarcasm, because there is nothing ‘nice’ about the scene at all.
A horrendous act of violation has just occurred, and home, a space that’s supposed to symbolise safety and protection, has now become the most dangerous location for Maya.
Holding one close, a gesture that’s supposed to convey love, care and warmth, is in this context nothing more than the outlet of Mr Freeman’s pedophilic perversion.
The saddest thing about this moment, however, is a young child’s struggle to distinguish between the embrace of real fatherly love and that of gross exploitative lust.
This, then, shows that the blame for Maya becoming a victim of Mr Freeman’s sexual abuse lies with her parents, too, as their neglectful parenting and cruel abandonment have led to the child’s insecurity, self-doubt and self-loathing – all of which are qualities that have contributed to the immense confusion and guilt Maya feels towards the incident.
This certainly isn’t the easiest of passages to read, let alone analyse. But explicitness aside (notwithstanding Scholastic’s designation of this book as suitable for Grades 9 – 12), it’s an important moment for us to understand the origins of Maya’s childhood trauma, without which the rest of her story wouldn’t exist.
Specifically, Angelou’s poetic use of words allows us to feel the moral challenge not from the reader’s privilege of distant remove, but rather, from that of an eight-year-old who’s made to suffer in confusing silence.
Confusion, not rage, is the key emotion.
How “it” all happened – Chapter 12: “I thought I had died”
In Chapters 12 and 13, we see Maya’s rape at the hands of Mr Freeman, and her subsequent denial of the incident when asked to testify at court.
There is a curious mix of nonchalance and melancholy in the description of a horrific process, in which Mr Freeman’s exploitation of Maya’s innocence rears its ugly head:
[Mr Freeman] gave me the money and I rushed to the store and back to the house. After putting the milk in the icebox, I turned and had just reached the front door when I heard, “Ritie.” He was sitting in the big chair by the radio. “Ritie, come here.” I didn’t think about the holding time until I got close to him. His pants were open and his “thing” was standing out of his britches by itself.
“No, sir, Mr Freeman.” I started to back away. I didn’t want to touch that mushy-hard thing again, and I didn’t need him to hold me any more. He grabbed my arm and pulled me between his legs. His face was still and looked kind, but he didn’t smile or blink his eyes. Nothing. He did nothing, except reach his left hand around to turn on the radio without even looking at it. Over the noise of music and static, he said, “Now, this ain’t gonna hurt you much. You liked it before, didn’t you?”
I didn’t want to admit that I had in fact liked his holding me or that I had liked his smell or the hard heart-beating, so I said nothing. And his face became like the face of one of those mean natives the Phantom was always having to beat up.
This idea of a girl or woman “liking” the intimacy offered by a man is so often the site of moral – and often, legal – contention, where one’s physiological and psychological response meet at their most fuzzy edges.
Does it make sense for the victim to also ‘like’ aspects of the violation, even if she’s aware that she’s being violated?
And does this then justify or excuse the perpetrator’s actions? (No.)
Can the victim feel confused about what or how she’s supposed to respond at first, only to arrive at a more definitive impression of what had happened after the event?
These aren’t at all easy questions, or even questions that anyone can really answer with a claim to being ‘right’, which makes it all the more important for us to at least consider.
Then comes the brutal moment –
[…] Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.
The scriptural allusion to the needle and the camel recalls the saying ‘the eye of a needle’, and the biblical teaching that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to go to Heaven.
In the context of what’s happening to Maya, Angelou emphasises the severe power imbalance between a young, vulnerable girl and a grown, imposing man, whose mind in that instant is bent on gratifying its transgressive desires.
The child is forced to “give”, partly because she’s up against a Goliath too powerful to contend with, but partly out of a forced martyrdom which fate (or God?) has unfairly imposed on her.
It’s hard to miss the scathing, albeit understated, irony in the description that immediately follows this scene –
I thought I had died – I woke up in a white-walled world, and it had to be heaven. But Mr Freeman was there and he was washing me. His hands shook, but he held me upright in the tub and washed my legs. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ritie. I didn’t mean it. But don’t you tell… Remember, don’t you tell a soul.”
I felt cool and very clean and just a little tired. “No, sir, Mr Freeman, I won’t tell.” I was somewhere above everything.
What’s incredibly sad about Maya’s paradoxical statement – “I thought I had died” – is that she’s really saying “I wish I had died”, because then at least she wouldn’t have to ever face up to the violation that’s happened to her, and she’d be rid of her violator forever. But God, it appears, isn’t as kind as the Bible makes him out to be.
Instead, underneath all the suffering lies a burgeoning question of quiet outrage: what has this young girl done to deserve any of the abuse, pain and trauma – all of which are likely to stay with her for the rest of her life?
Like so much of literature, the issue of theodicy comes to the fore, as suffering makes its mark yet again on those who least deserve it.
Mr Freeman washes Maya out of his anxiety of being found out, but ironically, the ‘blot’ he has inflicted on her isn’t anything he could ever wash away on the surface, or from her memory.
How “it” all ended – Chapter 13: “I was eight, and grown”
The court scene, far from being a moment which offers moral respite, reveals instead the tenuous foundations of the legal system, and the cruel schadenfreude that people are inclined to feel when they see others in suffering.
The law itself doesn’t always guarantee rightful vindication, nor does it necessarily uphold justice for all.
The saying that people who have nothing to do become busybodies is not the only truth. Excitement is a drug, and people whose lives are filled with violence are always wondering where the next ‘fix’ is coming from.
The court was filled. Some people even stood behind the churchlike benches in the rear. Overhead fans moved with the detachment of old men. Grandmother Baxter’s clients were there in gay and flippant array. The gamblers in pin-striped suits and their makeup-deep women whispered to me out of blood-red mouths that now I knew as much as they did. I was eight, and grown. Even the nurses in the hospital had told me that now I had nothing to fear. “The worst is over for you,” they had said. So I put the words in all the smirking mouths.
The paradox of being “eight, and grown” signals the aborted end of Maya’s childhood. It’s as if experiencing rape is a sort of unspoken, but understood, ‘baptism’ that all black women in the Stamps community must undergo to reach ‘true’ adulthood, and to see the world for the dark reality that it is.
In lieu of real sympathy, the women around Maya reveal the cynical empathy of those who were once violated, and are now forced to live with the shame, helplessness and bitterness that came out of the suffering. The worst is over”, they say, as if what’s happened to Maya is a good thing – a rite of passage for any black girl who wishes to survive in a brutal world.
The scene proceeds –
I sat with my family ([my brother] Bailey couldn’t come) and they rested still on the seats like solid, cold gray tombstones. Thick and forevermore unmoving.
Poor My Freeman twisted in his chair to look empty threats over to me. He didn’t know that he couldn’t kill Bailey… and Bailey didn’t lie… to me.
“What was the defendant wearing?” That was Mr Freeman’s lawyer.
“I don’t know.”
“You mean to say this man raped you and you don’t know what he was wearing?” He snickered as if I had raped Mr Freeman. “Do you know if you were raped?”
Unfortunately, Mr Freeman’s lawyer is no Atticus Finch: his cross-examination is ludicrous and unfeeling.
After all, it’s hardly reasonable to expect an eight-year-old to “know” if she was raped (this concept being inherently adult in nature), or to expect anyone – child or adult – to be sharp enough in the course of a mental and physical struggle to notice what their transgressor was wearing.
In Maya’s world, the concept of legal protection, it seems, is no more than an oxymoronic lie.
And those sitting in the audience aren’t any better –
A sound pushed in the air of the court (I was sure it was laughter). I was glad that Mother had let me wear the navy-blue winter coat with brass buttons. Although it was too short and the weather was typical St Louis hot, the coat was a friend that I hugged to me in the strange and unfriendly place.
“Was that the first time the accused touched you?” The question stopped me. Mr Freeman had surely done something very wrong, but I was convinced that I had helped him to do it. I didn’t want to lie, but the lawyer wouldn’t let me think, so I used silence as a retreat.
“Did the accused try to touch you before the time he or rather you say he raped you?”
I couldn’t say yes and tell them how he had loved me once for a few minutes and how he had held me close before he thought I had peed in my bed. My uncles would kill me and Grandmother Baxter would stop speaking, as she often did when she was angry. And all those people in the court would stone me as they had stoned the harlot in the Bible. And Mother, who thought I was such a good girl, would be so disappointed. But most important, there was Bailey. I had kept a big secret from him.
“Marguerite, answer the question. Did the accused touch you before the occasion on which you claim he raped you?”
Everyone in the court knew that the answer had to be No. Everyone except Mr Freeman and me. I looked at his heavy face trying to look as if he would have liked me to say No. I said No.
The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn’t get air. How I despised the man for making me lie. Old, mean, nasty thing. Old, black, nasty thing. The tears didn’t soothe my heart as they usually did. I screamed, “Ole, mean, dirty thing, you. Dirty old thing.” Our lawyer brought me off the stand and to my mother’s arms. The fact that I had arrived at my desired destination by lies made it less appealing to me.
Mr Freeman was given one year and one day, but he never got a chance to do this time. His lawyer (or someone) got him released that very afternoon.
And release Mr Freeman gets, but in the form of death. Shortly after this moment, he gets “kicked to death” by Maya’s uncles.
Whether his murder is an example of poetic or vigilante justice is for readers themselves to judge, but the big question here is why Maya lies about whether Mr Freeman had touched her before the rape.
Had she said yes, then Mr Freeman would be doubly implicated in his guilt, but equally, the lawyer would then interrogate her on why she didn’t voice out the first time Mr Freeman had touched her.
Because, the ‘logic’ often goes, if the perpetrator had touched you once and you didn’t say anything then, surely that’s a tacit approval for similar advances in the future?
Here, that same confusion of imagining “he had loved me once for a few minutes”, and that “he had held me close before he thought I had peed in my bed” crops up once again to cloud Maya’s perception of the incident.
Of course Mr Freeman hadn’t “thought” she peed – he planted the lie in her head so that she wouldn’t think it’s his semen. But Maya, despite being rationally aware that what Mr Freeman had done was a “dirty… thing”, continues to cling onto the hope that Mr Freeman was perhaps truly affectionate and fatherly – even if only “for a few minutes”. It’s not a full-blown case of Stockholm syndrome, but there are clear hints of it here.
As such, she is made to think that it was more her fault than his that whatever had happened happened.
Maya’s tragedy, then, could be seen as a result of absent paternal love and an excessive anxiety about family and community judgement, both of which, Angelou suggests, could be exploited for unfortunate ends.
What’s remarkable about Angelou’s portrayal of trauma, suffering and the loss of innocence is how she gets us to see Mr Freeman through the eyes of a child. From Maya’s eight-year-old vantage (but narrated in a more grown-up, retrospective voice), we are encouraged to see her violator as a deeply fallen man rather than the devil incarnate.
While this may be difficult to some extent, Angelou activates our sympathetic instincts before she does our moral judgment, and as such, pushes us to consider human nature and the vagaries of life on less ‘black and white’ terms.
It is the book’s ability to challenge us on these moral ‘shades of grey’, then, which makes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings such a rewarding read, and one that’s worth keeping on high school reading lists for a long time to come.