Strength in Numbers
Of the scholastic experiences shared by Maya Angelou in her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the most powerful occurs after her stint as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. After her time riding the hills of the city she returned to the narrow confines of George Washington High School to discover that she was no longer “ignorant of being ignorant [but] aware of being aware,” (Angelou 267). This pivotal moment in her life started her on a path of conscious knowledge acquisition and skirted the “murderous pressure of adult conformity,” that quickly befalls others (Angelou 267). Through this scene, Angelou highlights the necessity of female role models in the black community and her persistence that strength comes in multiple forms for those women.
Throughout her childhood, Angelou encountered three key women that shaped her view of the world. She was raised primarily by her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, who she referred to as Momma, and who vowed “thou shall not be dirty” and “though shall not be impudent” (Angelou 26). The morals instilled by Grandmother Henderson were taken largely from the bible and stressed an internal balance that could not be swayed by others. When antagonized by the ‘powhitetrash’ of Stamps and subjected to crude impersonations and naked handstands, Momma pauses in her hum-filled solitude only to say goodbye to the girls. Although Maya does not understand it at the time, Momma has proven herself to be morally superior through her inaction. Her happy expression shows a sincere quality to Angelou and instills in her memory the importance of having an unshakeable set of beliefs when dealing with adversity. This idea is alien to Maya who is unable to tolerate injustices in her youth and has to lash out whenever they occur, as shown in her dropping of the dishes when her employer intentionally changes her name to one that is more easily pronounced (Angelou 108). Momma models the idea that survival and success can occur without the threat of harm or without degrading a person’s base values.
In a mention spanning ten pages, Angelou informs the audience of Mrs. Bertha Flowers and Angelou’s introduction to the power of language. Described as having “the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather,” young Maya admires her for her elegance as a gentlewoman and later uses her as the “measure of what a human being can be,” (Angelou 92). In an attempt to get Maya speaking again after her rape, Mrs. Flowers reminds her that although no one can make her speak, “language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals,” (Angelou 96). Until this point, Angelou had seen her silence as the best tool to prevent harm for others and assumed that her words could only bring devastation to those around her. Mrs. Flowers allowed her to recognize the grace of language and the beauty in pairing words together for a purpose. The...