Maya Angelou’s novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounts the hardship and traumatic ordeals that she encountered growing up black, female and orphaned in the southern United States in the 1930s.
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Though classified as an autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings stands rather as a historical record of American racial tyranny at a time when the Jim Crow segregation laws were in full effect. The novel harkens back to a time when the black community in the United States suffered brutal economic and social suppression, violence with no access to legal recourse, minimal access to basic education and human rights, and limited access to health care.
This essay highlights one event in the novel related to the struggles faced by Maya and her family in regards to health care, wherein the town dentist Dr. Lincoln refuses to treat Maya’s toothache on the basis of her skin color. Maya’s solution to the racist treatment she and her grandmother receive at the hands of Dr. Lincoln is to fabricate an imaginary revenge scenario in which the dentist comes under the power of the grandmother.
Maya’s understanding of the racist attitudes of the town dentist renders shock when she discovers that her grandmother intends to take her to him. Maya expresses surprise when she learns that her grandmother intends to take her to the white dentist for treatment, as evidenced by the following quote: “Momma said we’d go to Dr. Lincoln, right in Stamps, and he’s take care of me. She said he owed her a favor” (Angelou 186).
Maya’s sense of what medical care was available to her as a black child has already been ingrained in her – she expresses no surprise when her grandmother urges her to change into clean clothes to prepare for the visit. “I had never been to a doctor, so she told me that after the bath…I had to put on freshly starched and ironed underclothes from inside out” (Angelou 186).
Even though Maya knows that her grandmother regularly lends money to whites in the community, she still doesn’t expect to be seen by the dentist. “I knew that there were a number of whitefolks in town that owed her favors. Bailey and I had seen the books which showed how she lent money to Blacks and whites alike during the Depression, and most still owed her…but I [never] heard of a of a Negro’s going to him as a patient” (Angelou 186).
Maya’s solution to the challenge of the racist dentist’s harsh refusal to treat Maya is to create a revenge fantasy wherein her grandmother claims the position of power. When the dentist’s assistant closes the door in her grandmother’s face, Maya experiences a familiar sense of humiliation. “Momma knocked on the back door and a young white girl opened it to show surprise at seeing us there…Momma said she wanted to see Dentist Lincoln and to tell him Annie was there. The girl closed the door firmly” (Angelou 187).
To solve the problem of the racist dentist who rejects Maya with the cutting remark that he would rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth than in the mouth of a black child, Maya conjures a fantasy wherein the Momma and the Dentist exchange power roles and the dentist becomes obsequious.
“You knave, do you think you acted like a gentleman, speaking to me like that in front of my granddaughter? She didn’t shake him, although she had the power…No, ma’am Mrs. Henderson ” (Angelou 190).
Maya rationalizes her grandmother’s acceptance of the racist treatment with the following: “I didn’t ask you to apologize in front of Marguerite, because I don’t want her to know my power, but I order you, now and herewith.
Leave Stamps by sundown.” (Angelou 190). Finally, Maya invests her grandmother with an elevated command of language to show her dominance over the dentist. “Her tongue had thinned and the words rolled off well enunciated. Enunciated and sharp like little claps of thunder…She could afford to slip into the vernacular because she had such an eloquent command of English” (Angelou 190).
Maya’s comprehension of how her grandmother dealt with the situation in reality offers her less emotional satisfaction that the fantasy. Maya hears her grandmother explaining to Uncle Willie that what really happened with the dentist was simply that she called in her loan: “If you paid me my money I could afford to take her…Even though by rights he was paid up before, I figger, he gonna be that kind of nasty, he gonna have to pay for it… Momma and her son laughed over the white man evilness and he retributive sin. I preferred, much preferred, my version” (Angelou 193).
Maya’s solution to the racist treatment she and her grandmother receive at the hands of Stamps dentist Dr. Lincoln, a man indebted to her grandmother’s innate sense of Christian charity, is to manufacture an elaborate imaginary revenge scenario wherein the dentist comes under the thrall of the magical grandmother. However, in reality Maya is disappointed by the grandmother’s tactic, without realizing that the grandmother compromised her Christian principles in order to get proper health care for her charge.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.