Maya Angelou as a Caged Bird
The graduation scene from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings illustrates how, living in the midst of racism and unequal access to opportunity, Maya Angelou was able to surmount the obstacles that stood in her way of intellectual develop and find "higher ground." One of the largest factors responsible for Angelou's academic success was her dedication to and capacity for hard work, "My work alone has awarded me a top place...No absences, no tardinesses, and my academic work was among the best of the year" (Angelou 13-14). Angelou worked hard and read a great deal in order to be able to perform on such a level, in spite of the fact that she had much less access (or none) to the quality of teachers, school environment and other resources available to whites because of her color.
Another way Angelou surmounted the disadvantages of being black in a racist white controlled school district was to view her brother as a role model. She is proud that she can recite the preamble to the Constitution faster than Bailey, she is proud he will see her graduate at the top of her class, and he provides her with literature which fuels her desire to read. Maya also used other students in her class who were intelligent as role models and a measure stick of her own performance. She admires the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, because he has been her most challenging academic competition among her peers. However, another reason Angelou is able to overcome obstacles and reach higher ground is that she is not jealous or mean-spirited about academically competing with others. Instead, she is happy that others are developing towards higher ground. As she says about Henry, "I had admired him for years because each term he and I vied for the best grades in our class. Most often he bested me, but instead of being disappointed I was pleased that we shared top places between us" (Angelou 14).
Angelou also overcame the isolation, muffling of her voice and low self-esteem that can develop in a segregated environment by looking to those who had achieved higher ground before her, in books, in music, and in art. She completely memorized The Rape of Lucrece, was well versed in Shakespeare, knew the life and times of Booker T. Washington, and was aware of the enduring power of black music. Like Washington would advocate, through hard work, education, love of others and making herself indispensable by way of her accomplished development, Angelou was able to rise above the disadvantages of her environment repeatedly. This is not to say that feelings of low self-esteem, anger, hostility, bitterness and rage were not all feelings and emotions engendered in her by the abusive environment that she would have to let go of before she could truly find herself-on higher ground. She describes how awful it was to be black and be accused of things one could not even find opportunity to defend against. She wishes all blacks were dead, she...