Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Representation of White People in Two Maya Angelou's Novels 'I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings' and 'Gather Together in My Name'

  An autobiography is a book about the life of a person that written by that person (Wikipedia). I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name are the autobiographies of Maya Angelou. According to Microsoft Encarta (2009), Maya Angelou, is an American author, poet, performer, and civil rights activist, best known for portrayals of strong African American women in her writings. Characteristically using a first-person point of view and the rhythms of folk song, she writes of the African American woman’s coming of age, of struggles with discrimination, of the African and West Indian cultural heritage, and of the acceptance of the past. I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings is the first from six of her autobiographies. The title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the stanzas from the Afro-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Maya used this title because the title symbolizes the black people. The Cage symbolizes the limitation and the Bird symbolizes the black people itself. According to Encarta Dictionary, Cage means metal enclosure for animal. The cage limits the bird to fly, so the cage bird in the title means the limitation of the black people to do anything. The limitation mentioned here implies that black people were not as free as the white people were. The black people are considered as the union of the minorities, that is why Maya rather to use the Bird than Birds. Sing symbolizes the existence of the Black people. When singing, they voiced. It means that when you are singing that means you articulate something, you voiced something. Singing is one of the black people ways to show what they feel, to express their selves. In I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, telling about Maya Angelou’s childhood. She starts her story when she was three years old until she was seventeen years old. In this story is told about how Maya and the Black people survive from the racism issue that existed at the time. In her seventeen years of her life, she has been through many different things with other kids in her age like sexual abuse; her stepfather, Mr. Freeman, raped her. That is a traumatic event for her. At the end of the story, Maya is told having a baby. The baby replaced all the things that actually lost, the father is replaced by Bailey and the baby replaced Bailey. Her second book titled Gather Together in My Name, this book is a continuation of the previous book I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. According to Wikipedia.org, the book's title is taken from Matthew 18:19-20: "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (King James version). While Angelou has acknowledged the title's biblical origin, she also stated that the title counteracted the tendency of many adults to lie to their children about their pasts (2010). The story began when she was 17 years old to 19 years old where she began carrying out her roles as a single mother. She began to find a job to fulfill the daily needs for her and the baby. Many issues come up in these autobiographies such as identity of the Black people, racism, segregation, sexual abuse, family relationship, etc. One of those issues that I want to talk in this essay is about racism. As we know, when we look back to the American history there were many literary works that raised theme about racism. The issue of racism has been the main problem in America, between the Whites and the Blacks especially in the colonial era and the slave era. In both autobiographies, show the representation of white people from Maya Angelou’s perspective and racial identity. Racial identity, racial affiliation, and racial exclusion are the product of human work, human effort (McCarthy, 1998).  

In this essay, we will try to see the result of the perception of racial context that is presented by Maya Angelou. However, before we talk about it further, we need to know about the perception. According to Britannica Concise Encyclopedia perception is a process of registering sensory stimuli as meaningful experience (1994-2008). Perception is influenced by a variety of factors, including the intensity and physical dimensions of the stimulus; such activities of the sense organs as effects of preceding stimulation; the subject's past experience; attention factors such as readiness to respond to a stimulus; and motivation and emotional state of the subject (T. C. E. Encyclopedia, 2007). Frank Jackson (1977) argues, among other things that we are never immediately aware of external objects, that they are the causes of our perceptual experiences and that they have only the primary qualities. In the course of the argument, sense data and the distinction between mediate and immediate perception receive detailed defences and the author criticises attempts to reduce perceiving the believing and to show that the Representative theory makes the external world unknowable. Another theory that talks about the perception, the theory is taken from Worldlingo.com. The representative theory of perception states that we do not perceive the external world directly; instead, we perceive our personal interpretation of an object by way of sense data. A na├»ve realist assumes she sees the dog upon perceiving a dog, whereas a representative realist assumes she sees a sensory representation of the dog upon perceiving a dog (Worldlingo, 2010). We will discuss about the perception by using both theories because those theories are mutually supportive, these arguments show that exactly when we will interpret something that must be influenced by all the objects that exist outside ourselves. The object may be experiences, ideas, needs, expectations, values, visual objects, and conflicts. 

I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings
Maya Angelou lived with her grandmother, Momma, and her brother, Bailey, in Stamp, Arkansas. Her neighborhood affects enough about her views against white people living in the vicinity. There are some evidences that show how Maya interpret the White people.

“I looked at the items that weren’t on display. I knew, for instance, that white men wore shorts, as Uncle Willie did, and that they had opening for taking out their “things” and peeing, and that white women’s breasts weren’t built into dresses, as some people said, because I saw their brassieres in the baskets. But I couldn’t force myselt to think of them as people… ” (Angelou, 1969 p. 25-26).

Maya wonders why the white people do that thing maybe the diversity of culture they have that makes Maya curious about it. This diversity make Maya considers the White people not as human beings. Besides that, the text shows her dislike of the White people. The other context also show how Maya dislike the White People, she named the White People as whitefolks.

“Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn’t walk on the balls of their feet the way people did-they walked on their heels like horse People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn’t like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren’t considered folks. They were whitefolks” (Angelou, 1969 p. 26).

Folk, according to The American Heritage - Dictionary of the English Language, means the common people of a society or region considered as the representatives of a traditional way of life and especially as the originators or carriers of the customs, beliefs, and arts that make up a distinctive culture (2009). As we know that the White people always have privilege in doing anything so in this context, Maya wants to represent the White people as common people. Therefore, she called them as whitefolks.

“Everyone I knew respected these customary laws, except for the powhitetrash children” (Angelou, 1969 p. 28).

Powhitetrash means someone so poor (and white trash) that could not afford the "o" and the "r" (Dictionary, 1999-2010). The context shows that many white people there are not rich as Momma, Maya ever said that some white people have lived in her house and worked with Momma.

“The judge asked that Mrs. Henderson be subopened, and when Momma arrived and said she was Mrs. Henderson, the judge, the bailiff, and other whites in the audienece laughed. The judge had really made a gaffe calling a Negro woman Mrs., but then he was from Pine Bluff and couldn’t have been expected to know that a woman who owned a store in that village would also turned out to be colored. The whites tickled their funny bones with incident for a long time, and the Negroes thought it proved the worth and majesty of my grandmother” (Angelou, 1969 p. 48).

The context seems to show that the White people never respect the Black people. When the white people addressed Momma with ‘Mrs.’, they laughed, as they know that Momma was a Negro. They think that they were wrong to call Momma with ‘Mrs.’ Then, the White people surprised when they knew that Momma was the owner of the store in that village because as they know the Black people only can be slaves or peasant.

“People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were prejudice that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate” (Angelou, 1969 p. 49).

The ice cream may symbolize the color, white as vanilla and black as chocolate. Therefore, they only can buy the ice cream that is precise with their color.

When Bailey tried to interpret the words with:

“Whitefolks use ‘by the way’ to mean while we’re on the subject,” Momma reminded us that “whitefolks” mouths were general loose and their words were abomination before Christ” (Angelou, 1969 p. 103)

Momma thinks that using ‘by the way’ is less politely and the words were abomination before Christ. From this statement, we can see that the whites have poor language skills. They cannot use any polite language. The language skill can show our intellect, our personality. If we are able to use good language, it shows that we have a good personality because language is one part of identity.

“While white girls learned to waltz and sit gracefully with tea cup balanced on their knees, we were lagging behind, learning the mid-Victorian values with very little money to indulge them. (Come and see Edna Lomax spending the money she made picking cotton on five balls of ecru tatting thread. Her fingers are bound to snag the work and she’ll have to repeat the stitches time and time again. But she knows that when she buys the thread). We were required to embroider and had I trunkfuls of chief to my credit” (Angelou, 1969 p. 104).

It shows the different culture between the white and the black. While the white girls drink the tea, the black must go to pick the cotton. The habit is opposite, the custom made by the girls as white people are a habit like done by the aristocracy.  

Gather Together in My Name
In the second book, it was told that Maya and her baby lived with her mother and her stepfather in San Francisco. It narrated about Maya’s life from the ages of 17 to 19, in those ages she has been through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempts to raise her son and tries to find place in the world for her and her baby. The themes of this second book are almost same with the first one the ways Maya overcomes racism, sexism, etc. She still shows her hateful against the white men. Like in a part of the beginning of the story, she called the white man as a silly white woman.
“I was mortified. A silly white woman who probably counted on her toes looked me in the face and said I had not passed. The examination had been constructed by morons for idiots. Of course I breezed through without think much about it” (Angelou, 1975 p. 7).
Mention of the white woman by calling her a silly white woman implies that Maya still keep her hatred to the white people. This may be because their treatment is still being unfair to the Black people. Then Maya finds another job in a Creole Cafe, she works there as a chef. She will do anything to find a job to get money include to lie that she can cook Creole.
“Wilshire Boulevard was wide and glossy. Large buildings sat back on tiny little lawns in a privacy that projected money and quite voices and white folks” (Angelou, 1975 p. 25). 
Maya still uses the term white folks to mention the white people. This consistency can show us about how Maya is feeling to the white people. The issues of racism still exist in her second book, the reason why it still subsists because it is influenced by the condition that happed at the time. Where the racial discrimination still be the main problem, and restrict the black people to do anything. Besides all the things that happened, the consistency of using this term because of Maya’s experienced at the past and compare it with situation that existed at the time that is forming Maya’s perception about the white.
 “The South I returned to, however, was flesh-real and swollen-belly-poor. Stamps, Arkansas, a small hamlet, had subsisted for hundreds of years on the returns from cotton plantations and until World War I, a creaking lumbermill. The town was halved by railroad tracks, the swift Red River, and racial prejudice. Whites lived on the town’s small rise (it couldn’t be called a hill), while blacks lived in what had been known since slavery as “the Quarters” (Angelou, 1975 p. 61) 
The depiction on the existing situation in this context is the separation between the blacks and the whites that occurred in America at the time where the separation between them is obvious. The racial problems still become the continual notorious issue in everyday American society. Comparing the perception of White character in I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name After looking through the novels there are two terms that Maya used consistently to describe or name the White people that are, whitefolks, and powhitetrash. She used these terms because she did not consider them as people, we can see it in this part of the story. Along with other black children in small Southern villages, I had accepted the total polarization of the races as a psychological comfort. Whites existed, as no one denied, but they were not present in my everyday life. In fact, months often passed in my childhood when I only caught sight of the thin hungry po’ white trash (sharecoppers), who lived sadder and meaner lives than the blacks I knew (Angelou, 1975 p. 62). It is said that Maya did not consider them as people, and the whites never exist in Maya’s life. She prefers to regard them as folks or parable them as something. Maya experienced may influence the naming of white people. Choosing an ethnic label is part of a process of group self-determination and reflects a way of thinking about the self. In choosing the label explicit verbal symbols or words are targeted to represent the essence of the group (and the self). The aim of the selection is to elicit a desired attitude or behavior toward and evaluation of the object reffered to; the desired reaction may be positive, negative, or both. Further, not only do names sway feelings and conduct toward the group, they also affect one’s view of reality toward both in- and outgroup members. Labels create as much as express a sense of ethnic identity (Thornton, Taylor, & Brown, 2000) 

As we discussed before perception according to Britannica Concise Encyclopedia is a process of registering sensory stimuli as meaningful experience (1994-2008). In I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name, some parts show Maya Angelou perception about the white people; those parts explain how the white people are in Maya’s point of view implicitly. The way Maya represent the whites in these stories are by naming the white itself and showing the events that illustrate the situation between the blacks and the whites. Those ways can build the readers perception about the character of the white itself. It is more likely Maya Angelou wants the readers able to make their own perception about the white characters through her thinking because in this story the white almost as the passive act which it shows by the narrator’s point of view.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books.
Angelou, M. (1975). Gather Together in My Name. New York: Bantam Books.
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