Maya Angelou's Self-Growth Foreshadowed in Caged Bird

In Stanley Fish’s essay, First Sentence, he emphasizes the effect of a first sentence, as having the capability to have an angle of lean.” (Fish 99). By this, Fish proposes that a first sentence has the power to show insight about the theme. Similarly, in Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first sentence is, “What you looking at me for?”, which shows her foreshadowing the underlying theme of her experiences: self-growth. During a time when racism was prevalent in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou grows from being insecure about herself as a black woman to a feeling of empowerment and coming to terms with her identity through her experiences.

Initially, Angelou was self-conscious throughout her childhood. As a child, she would find herself comparing how she looked to other members of her family. She felt a need to resemble their beauty in order to compensate for the vacant feeling of displacement. In St. Louis, California, Angelou had an encounter with her Uncle Tommy that heightens this self consciousness.

He said, “Ritie, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty… I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind” (Angelou 67). This scene shows a growing awareness about her physical appearance, as Angelou finds herself completely different in contrast to her mother and brother. We can relate this feeling of self-consciousness back to Angelou’s first sentence as it foreshadows people constantly commenting about her looks, hence the phrase “What you looking at me for?” This only marked the beginning of Angelou’s awareness of her looks and how people viewed her.

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Not only did racism make her self-worth questionable, but it also made Angelou realize how much she has to prevail in order to prove her value.

For instance, names are the basic means of identity. Without it, people can find themselves questioning their identity and self-worth. However, Angelou seems to have found some sense of self-respect as she doesn’t let someone rename her. During racial segregation, to rename a black person was common, yet insulting to them. While helping Mrs. Cullinan, a white woman, the suggestion to call Angelou “Mary” instead of Marguerite was made by her friends. Although Mrs. Cullinan knew that this would rest uneasy with Angelou, she began calling her Mary, in order to keep up appearances in front of her friends. Fortunately, Angelou prevails from this situation as she says, “Imagine letting some white woman rename you for her inconvenience” (Angelou 109). The sentence represents the first step towards self-growth as she insists on being called her own name. This event foreshadows a series of events that will portray the change of her insecurity to empowerment over her own identity. By saying that thought to herself, it’s shown that Angelou has a clear stance of how her life and identity are the same as that of the white woman’s. By formulating that everyone should be treated equally, Angelou’s self-growth takes another leap in the right direction.

The ultimate representation of self-growth Angelou experiences is during her eighth grade graduation ceremony. Once again, people try to knock Angelou down for their convenience. As a powerful white man interrupts the graduation simply to say that they won’t get anywhere in the world because of their race, Angelou is hit with a bulldozer demolishing all her aspirations. Yet, racism was a threat to the black community in Stamps, which was a reality that was not evident to Angelou until the valedictorian ended his speech with the “negro anthem.” Although she heard the song several times before, it was different this time. The words were purifying in a sense, as they demolished the hopelessness she felt. By the end of the speech, “The tears that slipped down many faces were not wiped in shame. We were on top again. As always, again.” (Angelou 184). The strength she gained from listening to the anthem gave her all the hope she needed to have a sense of power and pride in being black. The question that Angelou first asks is brought into light yet again during the white man’s speech. This time, however, through the “negro anthem,” Angelou is able to overcome the feeling of low self-worth and find strength and power from her community. Her self-growth is at its peak at this very moment, as she realizes she’s not alone and identifies herself as part of a community that shares similar painful experiences. Ultimately, “What you looking at me for?” portrays Angelou’s low self esteem that she overcomes and grows to feel confident in her skin and who she is.

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Maya Angelou's Self-Growth Foreshadowed in Caged Bird. (2022, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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