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The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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‘As if Black women did not have enough to contend with; being exploited economically as a worker; being used as a source of cheap labour because she is a female. And being treated even worse because she is black, she also finds herself fighting the beauty ‘standards’ of white western women’. These are the words of a black feminist, Pamela Newman confronting the issue of sexism as well as racism faced by black women. Black women are victims of oppression in society as they are classed as third class citizens.

Maya Angelou in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker brings out this truth. They each present the lives of Ritie and Celie, the main female protagonists who face great struggle in their lives. ‘The Color Purple’ is an historical fictional novel written in 1982 by Alice Walker. Celie, the main protagonist suffers verbal, physical and sexual abuse by different men in her life. This leaves her with little sense of self-worth, no narrative voice and no one to turn to. Walker uses letters to illustrate this characters position of complete powerlessness.

She trusts and hopes that God would help her come through and start a new life. She has found the person that would fight for her, so she starts every letter in the introductory chapters with ‘Dear God’. This emphasises Celie’s loneliness. Walker has immediately introduced a realistic angle with the use of God, which illustrates many black African American women’s struggle as they have no one to help them through their suffering except God, their ultimate redeemer. Celie speaks in first person through private letters to God and then later to Nettie.

Her shift to ‘Dear Nettie’ shows that she has found someone she can talk to and the presence through the letters has given Celie the strength to deal with the horrible reality she comes across in her life. Both characters regard God differently in their novels. Celie is more involved and is not capable of seeing beyond her own small life. While Angelou keeps us detached as Ritie is to what is going on around her. She believes that the black community use the existence of God to ease the pain they suffer in the ‘white’ world.

Walker chooses to tell us about women’s struggle through a real story whereas Angelou writes a first person narrative giving it the quality of a third person view, where the readers are allowed to think more. Angelou uses 36 chronologically organised chapters, written as a first person narration. ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is the first of five autobiographies written by Maya Angelou covering the years from her early childhood to the age of sixteen by focusing on the main protagonist Ritie. Ritie struggles towards self-understanding and independence confronting racism, sexism, violence and loneliness.

Angelou combined factional techniques with autobiography since the story is told by an adult who is recreating a child like voice and point of view for the novel. At the time Angelou wrote ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, black women wrote autobiographies as a way of asserting the importance of women’s lives and conveyed the difficulties of being black and a woman in America. The prologue and early chapters are largely introductory presenting the setting of black culture and introducing the theme. These chapters help the readers develop the character of Ritie through anecdotes.

This is very effective as they help set the important scenes in the novel. Angelou uses complex language while re-creating her young voice. This is reflected in her style of writing. ‘If he prophesied that the cotton in today’s field was going to be sparse… ‘ In this case, Angelou’s education is reflected in her style of writing, even when she creates a child like voice. Her language and style reflect the intricacies of what was going on in her mind, as she was mute for a few years of her life. Angelou documented her feelings through her novel, as she couldn’t have spoken her thoughts.

Celie begins her letter with ‘I have always been’. This is very important as Walker is showing how Celie is degrading herself. The deliberate change from ‘I am’ to ‘I have always been’ makes it seem like she has done something wrong. Celie’s letters undergo a very gradual shift in style. She starts to include her own opinions about things. They also talk less of Celie’s outer ugliness and more of her inner beauty. This shift symbolises that Celie is growing as a person, taking on more depth as a character and her self-respect has also increased.

‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly… ut I’m here’. . Her first letters focus on what she simply does, hears, sees and feels. Over time these letters include complex themes and insights. Each letter gives the reader greater insight into Celie’s life and serves as her way of communicating with the world. Walker shows how Celie is voiceless in the society she lives in because she is an African-American woman who is a victim of abuse. She uses these letters to break the silence that is imposed upon Celie. The advantage of the letterform is that it presents a private view of Celie’s thoughts.

The disadvantage is that the readers get a small point of view of what’s happening. Everything is seen from only Celie’s view. However, through these letters, Walker does give the idea that Celie and Nettie aren’t characters but real people through background information also present in the letters. This changes the way the readers think as they can relate to the characters to some extent. This differentiates from ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as Angelou mostly uses point of view to present other characters to the readers. As she is re-telling her story, we assume we want to know her viewpoint.

From the prologue in ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, Angelou emphasises the views that are held by the society, especially Ritie on race and appearance. For Ritie, beauty is defined by being white, with blonde hair and blue eyes. This was ‘everybody’s dream of what was right with the world’. As a child she believes that being black means being ugly. ‘Too-big Negro girl… space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil’. Ritie struggles with her perception of herself, as she believes she is having a ‘black ugly dream’ that she will wake out of.

This sense of displacement can be noticed in the first chapter where Ritie aged 3, and Bailey aged 4 are abandoned by their parents. The fact that Ritie has been constantly tossed back and forth creates a sense of not belonging anywhere. Angelou is successful in portraying Ritie’s abandonment and her feeling of being ugly. Men in ‘The Color Purple’ are portrayed mainly as oppressors that add to female struggles. Walker portrays Alfonso as a child molester, a wife beater and an overall bad husband. ‘He never had a kine wird to say to me.

Just say you gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t’. Through rapes and beatings, Celie is completely dominated by Pa. Walker is successful in making the readers believe this is a common reality for the black women in these times as she presents the readers with other women who endure the same assaults. Pa looked upon Celie as nothing more than an object for which he showed no affection or consideration. After going through the abuse from Pa, Celie made it her responsibility to protect her younger sister Nettie. ‘I see him looking at my little sister.

She scared. But I say I’ll take care of you. With God help’. The lack of emotions is portrayed in the style of writing as Walker is dealing with this horrible state as a condition that she must endure. However, Celie still wants to protect her sister from it. Walker is successful in making us feel the anger as reader towards their suffering as we feel like we are the only ones who can understand her. Like the character Celie, Ritie in ‘I know why the Caged Bird sings’ also suffers assault from the male characters in her own society.

Ritie, starved for physical and parental love, starts to fantasise that Mr. Freeman is her real father who makes sexual advances towards her. She misinterprets them as fatherly concern. ‘This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last’. Her emotional isolation is intensified by the fact that she gets raped at the age of eight, which makes her mute for a few years. Daddy Bailey is a flat character who never rises above his own self-concern. When Ritie goes to stay with him, he pits his girlfriend, Dolores against his daughter.

This shows Daddy Bailey’s insensitivities and inability as a father and a boyfriend. Other female characters also struggle against the patriarchy in their own culture. Tashi has to undergo female circumcision in order to remember her tribal roots. Black afro-American women had to go through this ceremony so they did not have to fear affection even though this could result in the inability to have children later. Squeak (Mary Agnes) makes an important act of resistance when she rejects the nickname that Harpo has given her. ‘My name Mary Agnes, she say’.

By renaming herself, she resists the patriarchal words and symbols Harpo has imposed. Walker shows the women in her novel as de-valued and worthless human beings by documenting the rapes but lacking the detail. ‘he took my hat off, say Squeak. Told me to undo my dress’. This emphasises their negative view of the future, their hopes and their lack of emotions. Sofia is one of the strong characters in ‘The Color Purple’. She doesn’t take any abuse from Harpo. Even though Sofia is able to rebel against abuse from men in her culture, she struggles against racism.

Sofia’s forceful outburst in response to Miss Millie’s invitation to be her maid ends up in her going to prison for twelve years of her life. Walker is able to show the inhuman act that is forced upon Sofia as she is not even allowed to see her children. Walker shows that even though strong women can rebel against sexism, they still have to suffer from the consequences of racism. One common characteristic about these women is that they rebel against their situation to look for a way out of their struggle.

In ‘I know why the Caged Bird sings’, Ritie has to grow up with social, political and economical inferiority of black citizens. The image that they portrayed for Ritie going through a white area was like ‘walking without weapons into man-eating animals territory’. The ‘white pow trash’ would not even allow the black people to buy vanilla ice cream. Angelou successfully shows how the racist surroundings affect the growing children in the future. Angelou uses a blend of tragedy and comic relief to show racism from a young Ritie’s experience.

Dr. Lincoln refuses to treat Ritie, suffering from extreme toothache and says he would ‘rather put his hand into a dog’s mouth than into a niggers’. Ritie fantasises of Momma turning, into a super hero and over powering the dentist. Angelou uses escapism in the form of humour to cope with a belief that something else could happen. Angelou shows how the women did not simply accept the unreasonable unfair attitudes. In a similar way, the power of strong females relationships is emphasised by Walker. Prescott quotes ‘For Walker, redemptive love requires female bonding’.

Walker portrays female friendship as a means of supporting each other by sharing their own struggles, as they have to deal with the pressures of oppression daily from the men in their homes and globally, in the world in which they live. In turn, these stories allow women to fight oppression and dominance. This sisterhood comes to Celie in form of Sophia, Shug and Nettie. Sofia tells Celie to start caring about the life she is living and worry about the future later. ‘You ought to bash Mr___ head open. Think about heaven later’. Sofia makes Celie realise that she doesn’t have to put up with the treatment of Mr___.

Angelou uses sisterhood in the same way as Walker. Most black women in the novel have survived sexism, racism and powerlessness not only through holding this belief, but also gaining self-respect. Momma is the strongest figure in Ritie’s life. She is wise, kind, loving, understanding and forgiving. She doesn’t want Ritie to be ashamed of being black and poor. Mrs. Flowers helps Ritie to break out of her muteness when her academic and spiritual awakening begins. ‘She was one of the few gentlewomen I had ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be’.

Ritie regards her as the best of human kind. Angleou derives the title ‘I know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ from a black writer, Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem. Even though Ritie’s imprisonment of life is caused by being black and female, Ritie goes on to learn ‘to sing’ or succeed in life. Her biggest achievement in life is giving birth to her son. ‘I had a baby. He was beautiful and mine. Totally mine’. For the first time Ritie feels like she truly belongs and that someone belongs with her. She finally finds her space and happiness as a mother.

Looking back at the past, the narrator is usually frightened, amused or sad. As the readers are shown emotions of anger, rage, irony and sometimes hysteria but as a narrator, Ritie is always upbeat, energetic and evaluating which all pays of at the end which becomes the beginning of a new life for Ritie. For ‘The Color Purple’, Walker uses the tone of sadness, which finally turns to anger and then shifts to happiness. The novel ends with Celie breaking away from all oppression and believing in herself. Neither the women characters nor the authors comment on the outrageous acts carried out by the black men.

To a certain extent they accept and understand this oppression because of the culture and the time they grew up in. This adds to the struggle, as the oppression has become a way of life from which there is no escape. In both novels the female characters struggle to survive and find some respect comes through. These women don’t blame the black men as they are united with them against the whites and their unreasonable attitudes. This is evident in both novels. In my opinion Walker is more successful in presenting the problems as she showed us how black women relied on God and each other as well as believing in themselves to face these problems.

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