Con Artists and Storytellers: Maya Angelou’s Problematic Sense of Audience
The story, though allegorical, is also historical; . . . and it is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe’s Preface
My books. They had been my elevators out of the midden.
Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name
As a literary foremother, Zora Neale Hurston meant a great deal to Maya Angelou the autobiographer. Urged by her editor to start work on a multivolume project about her life, Hurston said that she really did not “want” to write an autobiography, admitting that “it is too hard to reveal one’s inner self.” Like Hurston, Angelou affirms that she “really got roped into writing The Caged Bird” challenged by an editor who dared her to succeed in the difficult task of writing “an autobiography as literature.”1 That she wrote it as literature is the specific aspect of her work on which I shall focus in this chapter. Because the autobiographical project was a response to external pressures, it is in many ways directed to a white audience, but at the same time, it succeeds in gesturing toward the black community, which shares a long tradition among oppressed peoples of understanding duplicitous uses of language for survival. Thus a passage of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings encapsulates the questions of “truth” and referentiality as well as Angelou’s problematic sense of audience. In that passage, Angelou alludes to her grandmother’s secretive and cautious ways with language:
Knowing Momma, I knew that I never knew Momma. Her African-bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken. We have a saying among Black Americans which describes Momma’s caution. “If you ask a Negro where he’s been, he’ll tell you where he’s going.” To understand this important information, it is necessary to know who uses this tactic and on whom it works. If an unaware person is told a part of the truth (it is imperative that the answer embody truth), he is satisfied that his query has been answered. If an aware person (one who himself uses the stratagem) is given an answer which is truthful but bears only slightly if at all on the question, he knows that the information he seeks is of a private nature and will not be handed to him willingly. Thus direct denial, lying and the revelation of personal affairs are avoided. [164–65; my italics]
For Momma, the “signifying” of truths and untruths varies according to the status of her interlocutors, and it is in this differentiation between the “unaware” interlocutor and the “aware” that we can begin to understand Angelou’s conception of “autobiographical” narration and the double audience she addresses in her writings: an audience split along racial and gender lines but also—and this is the important point here—split between those interlocutors, on the one hand, who share with the narrator an unquestioned sense of community and those, on the other hand, who have a relationship of power over that narrator.
Clearly, for Angelou, writing an autobiography has little to do with “the revelation of personal affairs,” and like Hurston, she does not “reveal [her] inner self.” Indeed, the passage about Momma can be read as an important example of the “self-situating” power of literary texts.2 Momma’s caution functions as an explicit warning to the reader, who is thus challenged to take note of the double-voiced nature of Angelou’s text. Her narrator alternates between a constative and a performative use of language, simultaneously addressing a white and a black audience, “image making” (CT 1) and instructing, using allegory to talk about history and myths to refer to reality, thus undermining the institutions that generate this alienated form of consciousness. Here, Angelou provides us with a model for reading and interpreting her narratives, just as Hurston had in her discussions of form and content, truth and hyperbole.
But unlike Hurston, whom we could see as strongly connected to other women in a network of friendly relationships, as well as to rich and solid folk traditions she helps to reclaim—that of “conjure women,”3 for example—Angelou’s narrator is a much more picaresque heroine, a modern-day Moll Flanders, who learns to survive by her wits. In that respect, she too is related to a black folk tradition, but one that is perhaps perceived as more “male”: the shiftless trickster or con man, who relies on his ability to tell a good “story” to get out of sticky situations (Brer Rabbit, for instance). The narrator’s mother also fits into this tradition. She is a consummate “business woman,” runs her rooming house with a fist of steel, has “a roster of conquests” (IK 186) that testify to her independent nature. She is a Jill-of-all-trades who, by the fourth volume of the narrative, is said to have been “a surgical nurse, a realtor, had a barber’s license and owned a hotel” (HW 28). The relationship between Maya and her mother has puzzled critics who have tried to approach the “autobiography” from the perspective of a “metaphysics of matrilinear-ism.”4 I prefer to see in the descriptions of Vivian Baxter’s life and character the model of a streetwise, self-confident, “finger-snapping” woman (cf. IK 54). It is against this maternal persona and role model that Maya the narrator keeps measuring her accomplishments, only to find herself lacking. Her mother is so competent that she can only feel inadequate when she tries to emulate Vivian’s indomitable individualism.
An example of Maya’s imitative strategy is her attempt at running a whorehouse on the outskirts of San Diego. (GT chaps. 13–15). This episode ends, after her efforts at outsmarting the tough lesbian whores who “work” for her prove unsuccessful, in her bewildered flight back to her grandmother’s store in Arkansas. As the narrative develops, Maya gradually acquires her own survival techniques. These are, in a metaphoric way, closely linked to the development of her skills as “singer,” “dancer,” and “storyteller.” In one of her San Francisco nightclub acts, for instance, she adopts the stage role of Scheherazade and succeeds, she says, because “I convinced myself that I was dancing to save my life” (SS 60). Her stated frame of reference is fiction and literature, and her style parodies that of such fictional autobiographies as Moll Flanders.
In this chapter, while focusing on Angelou’s double-voiced technique of storytelling, I would like to emphasize three points. The chapter’s first section shows how the narrator’s love of books, always and everywhere, manages to pull her “out of the midden” (GT 90). As Tzvetan Todorov has said, “The desire to write does not come from life but from other writings.”5 Books are Angelou’s “first life line” after the traumatic events of her childhood (IK 77) and will continue to inspire her throughout her career.6 During her travels, for example, it is often through the prism of literature that she discovers and appreciates the peoples and places she visits: Verona through Shakespeare, Paris through Maupassant, London through Dickens. It thus seems appropriate, when analyzing her text, to use the literary paradigms she so cleverly manipulates. My second point concerns her use of the religious tradition: she inverts its messages, creating in the process nothing less than a feminist response to Augustine’s Confessions. Finally, the third section shows how her problematic sense of audience is translated textually by an astute use of various embedded instances of alienated and nonalienated forms of human communication deriving from her folk traditions.
The Picaresque Heroine
Angelou’s style owes as much to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English narratives—those of Swift, Defoe, and Dickens in particular—as it does to the black vernacular. It is truly a crossroads of influences and, at its best, weaves all these strands into a pattern in which, though they have become indistinguishable from one another, they give depth and detail to the narrative. George E. Kent has shown that “two areas of black life” subtend the development of Angelou’s narrative, “the religious and the blues traditions.” Her grandmother represents the religious influence: black fundamentalism, the Christian Methodist Episcopal church. Her mother, on the other hand, stands for the “blues-street” tradition, the fast life.7 I agree with Kent’s analysis but also believe there is a third term to add to this comparison: the literary tradition, all the fictional works the narrator reads avidly. This third tradition is represented figuratively in the text by two other strong women, Bertha Flowers and Martha Flowers (IK 77; SS 115). The text constructs these characters as fictional, boldly giving them almost identical names and stating that flowers is a recognizable slang word for “monthlies,” or menstruation, in the black prostitutes’ subculture (GT 39). When the narrator learns this “special” meaning of flowers from the two lesbian whores, she shows embarrassment and immediately resorts to “words” to conceal her feelings, to cope with her discomfort: “I knew that words, despite the old saying, never fail. And my reading had given me words to spare. I could and often did to myself or my baby, recite whole passages of Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems, Kipling’s ‘If,’ Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Long-fellows’s [sic] Hiawatha, Arna Bontemps. Surely I had enough words to cover a moment’s discomfort. I had enough for hours if need be” (GT 40; my italics).
The flow of words is meant to cover a momentary discomfort, a discomfort due to an allusion to “flowers,” which thus connotes an implicit comparison between women’s creative and procreative powers. The juxtaposition between the slang word and “literary” words points back to the narrator’s rediscovery of human language after her deflowering at the age of eight. It is thanks to the help of “Bertha Flowers,” who teaches her to recite poetry, that she begins to talk again after a year of sensory numbness and dumbness, following the rape trial. This juxtaposition also points forward to her friendship with “Martha Flowers,” “a great soprano” and a member of the Porgy and Bess touring company, who will share her European experiences. Language and menstruation are thus brought into implicit parallel as flow, voice, words, songs all connote by association the fluid movements of music or text. There is a creative tension between Angelou’s Nietzschean need to be free to “write with blood” and the narrative control she exerts on plot development.8 What this tension denotes is her attempt to come to terms with the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the concept of female creativity.
Indeed, the comparison between intellectual production and pregnancy, creativity and procreation, has been a commonplace of Western discourse since Socrates, who practiced intellectual maieusis on his students. What seems to be implied in Angelou’s text is that menstruation is a far better paradigm for creativity, a paradigm Marie Cardinal will use with considerable effect in The Words to Say It. Are we to infer that Angelou is implying a conflict between writing and mothering? I would suggest not, in view of the role assigned to her mother, Vivian Baxter. Full of energy and self-confidence, she represents creativity in the “rhythm and blues” tradition, and Angelou uses images of liquids to describe her: “As I scrambled around the foot of the success ladder, Mother’s life flowed radiant. Fluorescent-tipped waves on incoming tides” (GT 104).
The mother’s energy flows unchecked and unselfconsciously. She has raw power, and her style is improvised like the ebb and flow of jazz. If this flow of creative rhythms is in counterpoint to the actual mothering of a real child, it is interesting to note again that Angelou the author dedicates her first volume to her son. Perhaps this is a perfect example of the ambivalence that occupies the center of all feminist problematics about writing: to produce the book, the woman must follow rhythms of creativity which may be in conflict with the mothering/nurturing role. To be sure, one can see Vivian Baxter as a nonnurturing, highly competitive, and goal-oriented mother. Yet she is the one who teaches Maya to trust her body, to follow her maternal instincts when her son Guy is born. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends in the physical experience of giving birth to Guy.
“Famous for [her] awkwardness,” the narrator “was afraid to touch him.” But Vivian coaxes her into sleeping with the baby, although at first she “lay on the edge of the bed, stiff with fear, and vowed not to sleep all night long” (245). Eventually she relaxes and sleeps with her arm curled and the baby touching her side. This experience teaches Maya the same lesson that Milkman, the hero of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, learns facing death, that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”9
Vivian puts it in a less poetic, more pragmatic way, teaching Maya that her body is a friend she can trust: “See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking” (246). What this remark implies is that the conflict between productive and reproductive roles is a false problem, a myth created by false anxieties; nonetheless it is a myth internalized by women writers, perhaps because there are as yet so few “creative mothers,” like Vivian Baxter, who can show us how to “surrender to the air” not just in order to face death but so as to do “the right thing . . . without thinking,” without being petrified by fear and guilt in the face of life, which is always change, flux, flow, tide, rhythm—like the music Vivian Baxter loves.
To the extent that Angelou feels strongly that a mother can never be fully independent—psychologically detached, that is—she constantly wrestles with this conflict. Her text embodies these tensions in its structure. During her year in Europe, she keeps having pangs of anxiety about her son, although she enjoys “every minute” of freedom: “Uncomfortable thoughts kept me awake. I had left my son to go gallivanting in strange countries and had enjoyed every minute except the times when I had thought about him” (SS 230). Hysterical from guilt and anxiety after her son becomes sick, she pays a useless visit to a psychiatrist, for whom, she imagines, she is only “another case of Negro paranoia” (235). Finally, she follows the advice of a friend and writes down her blessings: “I can hear / I can speak . . . I can dance / I can sing . . . I can write” (236). She regains her self-confidence, and her son simultaneously recovers: “Before my eyes a physical and mental metamorphosis began, as gradually and as inexorably as a seasonal change” (237). To write is to give herself the permission not to feel guilty. To write is to love her son in a life-affirming way. The third volume ends on this image of rebirth for both mother and son: she writes and he “names” himself, as we shall see presently. There is no real conflict: it was only a societal myth about maternal neglect, an internalization of false dichotomies between mothering and smothering or mothering and working.
Angelou attempts to solve the conflict textually by creating metaphors that point to a reality beyond this form of deadly dualism. She creates a mythology of the “creative mother” so that other mothers writing do not have to “feel like a motherless child” (as the spiritual says) when attempting to be creative. For Nikki Giovanni, another contemporary black autobiographer, to “feel like a motherless child” is to be without a mythology of our own because we have “underestimated our strength.” The power to create mythology is a characteristic of the “honkies” that Black women should imitate, she says. “The honkie is the best mythologist in creation. He’s had practice because his whole wrap [sic] is to protect himself from his environment.”10
Clearly stated here is the quintessential Western dichotomy between nature and culture. Learning to “ride the air,” however, would mean learning to be nurtured by nature—as Colette knew well—learning to take pleasure in the materiality of the world (our children), as well as the materiality of the word (our writing), as Angelou discovers. We are not very far from Roland Barthes’s statements in The Pleasure of the Text:
If it were possible to imagine an aesthetic of textual pleasure, it would have to include writing aloud [l’écriture à haute voix]. . . . its aim is not the clarity of messages, the theater of emotions; what it searches for (in a perspective of bliss [jouissance]) are the pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language. A certain art of singing can give an idea of this vocal writing.11
This “vocal writing” is familiar to Vivian who “sang the heavy blues . . . [and] talked with her whole body” (IK 54), and to Bertha Flowers, who advises Maya: “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning” (IK 82). It is also familiar to anyone who has ever told stories to a small child, stories that infuse words with meaning and let the child hear “the grain of the voice,” as Barthes would say. Children who are learning to use language enjoy the density of words in precisely that playful way.
Angelou’s own playfulness with words is evident in her choice of names for the characters. The names of the narrator, her brother, her mother, her son, and her lovers all bear interesting indications of a fictional and metaphoric use of language, closely resembling Defoe’s in Moll Flanders. Maya Angelou, as she explains, is the stage name of Marguerite Johnson (marguerite being the French word for a flower, the daisy). Maya, she writes, is a name created for her in childhood when her brother started calling her first “my sister,” then “my,” “mya,” and finally “Maya” (IK 57). Angelou is a corruption of her first husband’s name, Angelos. Tosh Angelos is a Greek who shares her love of jazz (i.e., black) music and English (i.e., white) literature, but their marriage fails because “he wrapped us in a cocoon of safety” (SS 27), which was like another cage, a shield, a veil against reality. After her divorce, she finds a job as a dancer in a bar: “If men wanted to buy my drinks, I would accept and tell them [the truth]. . . . That, along with imaginative dancing, would erase the taint of criminality. Art would be my shield and honesty my spear” (SS 58; italics mine).
The narrator abandons one kind of shield—marriage—but adopts a new one—art and dance. Now, in the Hindustani language, māyā is the word for “veil,” and in Vedantic philosophy it is synonymous with the power to produce illusions and appearances. The Goddess Mahāmāyā personifies the world of illusion, and she is the power that creates phenomena.12 Might the author want to imply that the narrative is fiction and illusion, creations of Angelou, the author? That, like God, she has the power to (re)create the life story of the narrator, to show that she is an “angel,” but in appearance only? That she “sings” like an angel, perhaps? And dances, like Salome, a “Dance of the Seven Veils” (SS 45), creating a multilayered artistic illusion? The text clearly allows for all these interpretations. Furthermore, if “Maya” is a creator and a goddess, she is invested with powers comparable to those of the “conjure women” of black tradition, and we would thus be justified in reinscribing this text within that tradition. I do not intend to do this here, but I do want to point out that this possibility exists, especially when we consider that the Greek word angelos, -ou means “messenger.” Maya thus figures as the creator, Angelou as her messenger, the one who brings her forth while remaining veiled (maya angelou means the veil of the messenger: an interesting combination of Indo-European roots).
Ironically, Vivian Baxter’s name points to an eighteenth-century figure with whose writings Defoe was familiar, the Reverend Richard Baxter, whose preaching style and “technique of persuasion,” writes Ian Watt, “depended almost entirely on the simplest of rhetorical devices, repetition.”13 Defoe and Angelou both rely heavily on the same device. In her texts repetition is most striking in the short summaries or recapitulations of past events that stud the narrative and serve as reminders to the reader before the onset of new developments. These are more and more frequent in the third and fourth volumes, becoming a leitmotiv, like the choral responses of church prayer and music, which are meant to create familiarity and audience participation.14 This style of conscious repetition harks back to the advice Baxter gives as a preacher. Discussing Baxter and the influence he has had on Defoe, Ian Watt quotes the eighteenth century preacher: “If we speak anything briefly, they feel not what we say. Nay, I find if we do not purposely dress out the matter into such a length of words, and use some repetition of it, that they may hear it inculcated on them again, we do but overrun their understandings, and they presently lose us.”15
All preachers, and those in the black church especially, use this technique. Angelou follows Baxter’s advice on a purely textual level: her narrative mimics and parodies this style. On metaphoric and symbolic levels, however, she constructs an interesting inversion of this paradigm: Vivian Baxter, fast living, impatient, with no interest in details and repetitions (“Vivian Baxter could and would deal with grand schemes and large plots, but please, pray God, spare her the details.” [SS, 101]), is the female character she most admires and openly tries to emulate, as daughters emulate mothers. Vivian Baxter is a figurative inversion of her eighteenth century namesake— the preacher—as her “blues-street”16 life makes clear. So, on the one hand, we have a religious style that allows us to insert Angelou’s work back into the black religious context. On the other hand, we have a textual figure, Vivian, who is a model for the narrator and who embodies the free style of improvisation (with variation on and repetition of a single basic pattern) in black music: jazz and the blues. The link between these two poles is the literary tradition, which relays Richard Baxter, by means of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, to the twentieth-century black female writer. The biological mother, Vivian Baxter, has a fictional counterpart in Moll, whose “autobiography” could be seen as the matrix that allows Angelou to produce and reproduce her own narrative discourse. As a central and poly-semic narrative figure, Vivian embodies all the traditions whose combined influences are evident in Angelou’s textual production.17
Furthermore, the anxieties Maya feels before her mother seem to metaphorize the author’s relation to the British narrative tradition: meeting her mother in St. Louis, Maya is stunned by Vivian’s beauty and presence. Her light skin, straight hair, and talented dancing make her unreal to her children. “I could never put my finger on her realness” (IK 57), and she is “like a pretty kite that floated just above my head,” (54) says Maya. She is an unattainable ideal, distant and out of reach for her “ugly” daughter. I would suggest that we can read in the descriptions of this too beautiful, almost white mother, the same “anxiety of authorship” that Angelou the writer may feel before her literary precursors, such as Daniel Defoe, for example, whose Moll Flanders she nonetheless tries to emulate.18 This eighteenth century narrative, closer in language to many southern idioms than those are to contemporary standard English, offers a sympathetic yet inescapably alienating reading of an individualistic “heroine.” Vivian Baxter is such an individualist, and in Gather Together in My Name, the narrator does attempt to adopt her mother’s life-style. But in sharing ideals of beauty and independence which are beyond reach, the daughter only alienates herself. Similarly, the English literary tradition has a beauty and a power that attract Angelou the writer, yet must leave her feeling inadequate before her precursor’s discursive models of staunch individualism.
Angelou gives other clues to help the reader understand her naming technique: her son’s name in the second volume is Guy. Then in the third volume, he becomes “Clyde,” without explanation. We could see this as one example of the kind of “casual attitude to . . . writing,” as Ian Watt puts it, which goes far toward explaining the “inconsistencies in matters of detail which are very common in all [Defoe’s] works.”19 Except that in Angelou’s case, the matter of her son’s name is hardly a “detail.” At the end of the third volume, we are given the explanation that he himself has just decided to change his name to Guy. Clyde, he says, is “an O.K. name for a river, but my name is Guy” (238). At no point does the narrative explain or suggest why he was Guy throughout the second volume. What we can infer from the name Clyde however (the Clyde River of Scotland), is the idea of flowing waters, metaphoric female creation and procreation. Changing his name to Guy, this fatherless son appropriates the absent father’s prerogative of naming and chooses a first name that is unmistakably “masculine”: he thus sets himself apart from the female creative principle. As Janheinz Jahn says in his study of African culture: “The new-born child becomes a muntu only when the father or the ‘sorcerer’ gives him a name and pronounces it. Before this the little body is a kintu, a thing; if it dies it is not even mourned. . . . A creature . . . which has its place in the community of men is produced, not by act of birth, but by the word-seed: it is designated.”20 Thus Clyde becomes a true member of the community after he has assumed the responsibility of naming himself. It marks the beginning of his separation and emancipation from the maternal realm. He is nine years old, and his show of independence connotes another separation, as in the act of birth, after a nine-month gestation. The child of her “immaculate pregnancy” (IK 245), he has now become a true “muntu” and designated himself as such: Guy, a guy, a man who rejects the erasure of his African past in much the same way that Malcolm X did by changing his name.
The names given to Maya’s lovers and husbands suggest a duplicitous use of language and a conscious effort of fictional narration. Tosh in Scottish, means trim (and in black slang, to get or give “some trim” means to get laid [cf. IK 240]), as well as neat and proper. Tosh Angelos is a very proper and protective husband until marriage turns him into a louse. On the cruise ship that takes the opera company from Italy to Egypt, Maya meets the ship’s doctor whose “eyes smoldered wonderful promises” (SS 201). He too is Greek: Geracimos Vlachos. But he says,“I am called Maki.” He wants to marry her in order to emigrate to the United States, where he will be able to “make money” (214) practicing medicine. She flatly refuses. In the next volume, she marries a black South African freedom fighter. “His name was Vusumzi Make (pronounced Mah-kay)” (HW 104). He turns out to be pretentious and overbearing. In Cairo she soon becomes disillusioned with this fake “African King,” who furnishes their apartment in “Louis XVI brocaded sofa and chairs . . . French antique furniture . . . Oriental rugs,” (HW 214). Instead of experiencing the “African” way of life, she is burdened with all the external signs of European monarchy. The words make (Old English) and maki (Old Norse) are cognates: they both mean mate, consort, spouse. It is quite clear that these three characters are facets of the same type and that Angelou is playfully suggesting ironic similarities among them.
The theme of similarity within difference in their names seems to point to a philosophy of life at once similar and different from Moll’s (and Vivian Baxter’s): the economic individualism of Moll would have dictated that she marry Maki, the doctor, since his M.D. degree could be turned into real currency, real wealth. Also, Moll would have taken advantage of Make’s lavish life-style, but Maya only finds it distasteful and alienating. Defoe is “not ashamed to make economic self-interest his major premise about human life,” says Watt. Angelou’s premise is more engage and more modern. Like Defoe, she uses what Watt calls “an episodic but life-like plot sequence,” but her aim is always to return to the familiar and nurturing domain of books and literature.21 Like Moll, Angelou’s narrator has definite ambitions, but whereas Moll wants to become a gentlewoman, Maya wants immortality and fame. She wants to join the “elite group of published writers” (HW 85): “I decided that one day I would be included in the family legend. . . . my name would be among the most illustrious. . . . I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the star” (GT 28). Defoe writes with great sympathy for women’s restricted roles in society, and Moll is a good example of a woman “smart enough” not to allow herself to be involuntarily restricted by a feminine role. Angelou’s narrator struggles against similar social codes, and eventually finds the courage to stand her ground and define her territory, but it is the territory of a “too smart” woman (GT 166): libraries, books, and writing. In Cairo, she becomes a journalist (as Defoe was), and takes refuge in the newsroom of the Arab Observer and in its “library with hundreds of books in English” (HW 231). She achieves a measure of emancipation thanks to her intellectual talents and her love of books. It is quite an accomplishment for the little girl from Stamps, who grew up in the red dirt of the American South, “where children become bald from malnutrition” (SS 110). Her checkered existence finally comes to a resting point in Accra, where she lands a job as administrative assistant at the University of Ghana.
The title of Maya Angelou’s first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, introduces the major metaphors that will run through all four of her books: imprisonment and singing. In Black Autobiography in America, Stephen Butterfield compares this work with those of Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass. The male writers, he says, tend to portray their lives of struggle against the white oppressor and their efforts to destroy the “cage” of racism and slavery, “But, unlike Black Boy and The Life and Times, the subject of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not really the struggle of the bird; it is the exploration of the cage, the gradual discovery of its boundaries, the loosening of certain bars that she can slip through when the keepers’ backs are turned.”22
Indeed Maya’s “struggle” is of a different nature from that of the males: more personal and less public or social. There are no direct or violent confrontations with intense racial overtones. Her sense of humor is in sharp contrast to the seriousness of a Richard Wright. But I would suggest that, as the title of the volume implies, her subject is much more than the “exploration” or representation of this circumscribed domain. It is, rather, the investigation of the process through which the “bird” learns how to sing and the reasons why she does so in the face of adversity. To discuss the how and the why of the song, however, requires us to do a careful analysis of the textual layers and of their structuring moments.23
For example, the store where Maya and her brother live, “her favorite place to be” (13), the center of activity in Stamps and the source of food and surprises, is an important structuring image, whereas the rape trial is a central and structuring moment of the first volume. The store full of treasures is like a book that contains unexpected pleasures for the reader (“Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the front doors was pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift ). The only place she calls “home” (GT 63), the store is a metaphor for the storehouse of memory, which can be opened—as the “cage” will be opened—by the ribbon of language. It is a refuge like the libraries and the books she loves (and indeed she will seek refuge in a library after her rape). For Marie-Thérèse Humbert too the village store will function as a protective matrix, as a safe and enclosed space where the narrator can feel restored and reborn.
The way in which Angelou’s text presents the events leading both to her rape and to the trial provides an interesting context to the whole notion of familial rape vs. social violation. The trial scene is the subject of chapter 13, but it is already symbolically implied in the opening scene of the book, where the experience of being on display—in church—is powerfully rendered. This opening scene is a classic example of the theme of woman-as-spectacle, woman unwillingly displaying herself. Here, it is a little girl thrust before a community of people gathered to worship God the Father. She had been looking forward to this day, dreaming that she was going to “look like a movie star” when she recited her poem in church: “What you looking at me for? /I didn’t come to stay ...” But on that Easter morning, she does not metamorphose into “one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world” (1). Instead, she is painfully aware of the gap between that dream and her actual physical appearance: she is wearing a dress that is “a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway” (2); her “skinny legs” and skin that “look[s] dirty like mud” seem to be the focus of everyone’s gaze. Not surprisingly, she loses all her aplomb, forgets her lines, hears only the “wiggling and giggling” (1) of the other children, runs out of church: “I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks” (3). As she runs back home “peeing and crying,” all she can think about is that (as the popular superstition goes) she must not hold back the flow of urine or “it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place” (3). The problem is that she will surely “get a whipping” for losing mental and physical control and be mercilessly teased by the “nasty children” of the congregation. Her performance anxiety leads to complete failure, and failure results in harsh punishment imposed by family (the whipping) and society (the laughter of her peers).
This scene encapsulates all the elements that have become identified with the ambiguities of female performance: having to live up to an idealized image; feeling imprisoned in a body that does not correspond to the idealized image; dreaming of escaping from that “cage”; dealing with the problematics of public speech when “other things [are] more important,” (1) such as the feeling of giving-oneself-away-as-spectacle (an “ugly” spectacle at that) and the literal numbness and dumbness that ensues. The flow of involuntary excretions is perceived as both releasing and threatening: if she holds it back, she may “die from a busted head”’; (3) if she lets it flow, she will surely be punished. To write or not to write is another facet of the same predicament. Until abolition de jure, but until much later de facto , it was a punishable crime to teach a black to read or write; yet we also believe that a talented person may be “driven to a numb and bleeding madness”24 if creativity is constantly stifled and finds no outlet. The bottom line remains painful: whatever her choices, the consequences are going to be difficult. In this case, she runs away from the public eye, choking back tears and laughter, her lines unspoken, her pride wounded. Her body has had the upper hand, its physical release from tension manifested in this uncontrolled urge to urinate.
This opening scene squarely pits the mind against the body, the mind biting the red dust of Arkansas because the body is such a great liability. It is particularly significant that this episode, chronologically out of sequence in the narrative, should set the tone for the story. For this is clearly the tale of a woman who learns to “let the words flow,” to perform in public and sing “gloriously,” and to find the positive links between body and mind that will allow her to break free of the cage of prejudice and self-hatred. As discussed before, the book ends on another physical experience, the birth of her son, which teaches her to trust her body’s language and knowledge, to make it the source and the model of her creativity. This trajectory is a familiar one in many women writers’ autobiographies. The positive links that Angelou finds are literature and music.
Initially, however, she is literally brainwashed into silence by religion, family, and society. Grandmother Henderson is the primary agent—and model—of this silence. During cotton-picking season, she would get up everyday at four o’clock and “creak down to her knees, and chant in a sleep-filled voice: ‘Our Father, thank you for letting me see this New Day. . . . Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow, and help me put a bridle on my tongue,’ “(5; my italics). Saying too much or saying the wrong thing is akin to being impudent, and “the impudent child was detested by God” (22). The consistent self-control that Momma can exert in stressful encounters (cf. 24–27) is in sharp contrast to Maya’s frequent loss of control in church. There is another instance of hysterical laughter and uncontrolled urinating in chapter 6, and these episodes are severely punished. The hysteria, however, comes right after the narrator has been commenting on her increasing capacity for tuning out the world and wrapping herself in a cocoon of silence and private daydreams: “Turning off or tuning out people was my highly developed art. The custom of letting obedient children be seen but not heard was so agreeable to me that I went one step further: Obedient children should not see or hear if they chose not to do so” (34).
This is the first ominous hint we have of the state of catatonic indifference she will fall into after the rape trial. Raped by her mother’s neglected lover, she identifies with her rapist, whose densely physical presence had released in the lonely child a sense of belonging, of affiliation and security. Yet her trust is betrayed by the man she wanted to love as a father. Her body has suffered excruciating pain, but that in itself is nothing new for a child used to repeated corporal punishment.25 Her imaginary world of language and literature is stolen by the intrusion of phallic power. Her family, as a whole, fails her. Yet the “rape” is not over. She also has to confront society in the courtroom, and that encounter reduces her to total silence. It is during the trial that she finally internalizes the religious teachings of her childhood completely and consequently begins to perceive herself as evil: “I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape” (73). The defendant’s lawyer attempts to put the blame on her, and the child becomes convinced that she is responsible for the rape: “I didn’t want to lie, but the lawyer wouldn’t let me think, so I used silence as a retreat “(70; my italics). The child quickly learns how to decode the social system in order not to be victimized any further. She has no choice but to lie for survival’s sake. On the familial and social level, the rapist has been punished, justice has been done. On a personal level, however, Maya’s ordeal is just beginning: having sworn on the Bible to say the truth, she is now much more traumatized by the memory of the lie and by the belief that she is responsible for the man’s death.
She begins to see herself, through society’s eyes, as an ambiguous victim. She gets the message that she must, on some level, have done something wrong. Since the rapist is responsible for making her lie, he must be evil. Because of him, evil invades her too, she is hopelessly contaminated by those troublesome bodily fluids, which are polluting and taboo: “Obviously I had forfeited my place in heaven forever, and I was as gutless as the doll I had ripped to pieces ages ago. . . . I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people?” (72; my italics). Language is a form of “evilness,” waiting to escape from her inner self like those fluids and involuntary excretions that can be hard to control (urine or semen) or simply embarrassing (“flowers,” or menstruation). Language is evil, polluting, uncontrollable, and most of all the source of undeserved and incomprehensible punishments. The little girl is thus in possession of another deadly secret: that every word she utters may allow her inner and evil reality to escape and to hurt or kill others. She has no choice but to remove herself from the community by refusing language:
Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.
I had to stop talking.
I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. . . . I simply stood still—in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten all the sounds (73; my italics).
Her isolation and alienation are complete. She achieves control over yet other bodily functions, her tongue, her breath. She closes off all her orifices, paradoxically, by letting the outside world of sounds rush in, so that the inner reality of evil is prevented from rushing out. She achieves “perfect personal silence” by being totally open, or disponible, to the external world while keeping her inner world repressed or suppressed.26
The sequence of textual events Angelou establishes draws a close parallel between the experience of rape and the child’s internalization of societal and religious standards. First, her body is appropriated by the father figure—precisely on Saturday, the day she would normally have exercised her freedom to read, to “breath[e] in the world” of literature (64). Then, in the courtroom, she is given a reflection of herself as evil, just as in the opening scene of the book she saw herself mirrored in the eyes of the church community as a shameful and “black ugly dream” (2) who was “sucking in air to breath out shame” (1). Now she sees herself as a sinful and dirty vessel. Her secret and imaginary world has been violated, contaminated, and she can no longer escape there. Performance anxiety made her speechless in church. Now she discovers that language can perform, create reality, that language is powerful performance because it can kill. Mr. Freeman dies, and Maya metaphorically cuts off her own tongue.
In the Greek legend of Philomela, Tereus, and Procne, it is Tereus the rapist who, after violating Philomela, rips out her tongue in order to prevent her from telling the truth to her sister Procne, Tereus’s wife. Philomela then sends to her sister a piece of embroidery on which she has woven her story.27 Maya’s self-inflicted punishment is similar to Philomela’s. But it is as a result of her own absorption of patriarchal, social, and religious discourses that she stifles herself. She has become a docile and benumbed element of the oppressive system that controls her life, until the discovery of literature allows her to weave her own story. It is clear from her own remarks that Angelou the author identifies with Philomela: when she first becomes a showgirl and a dancer in San Francisco, she is attracted to a drummer who befriends her but loves only his wife Philomena, about whom he says: “—pretty name, ain’t it? She can tell a story that would break your heart. Or else she can make you split your sides” (SS 58). Angelou’s own narrative is a tragicomic tale of growing up black and female in America. She creates an allegory of the feminine condition which cuts across historical, social, and racial lines, using laughter and compassion to defuse the implicit violence of her subject matter.
We may recall that in the Confessions, Augustine discusses his access to human language. (“I ceased to be an infant unable to talk, and was now a boy with the power of speech [non enim eram infans. . . . sed iam puer loquens eram]” as a function of his initiation into the “stormy or tempestuous life of human society [procellosam societatem].” His acquisition of the power of speech as well as his schooling in rhetoric are paralleled with the “fornications” he began to engage in, meaning “lying and cheating,” as well as other “perversions.” Ultimately, his progress to God must include a gradual silencing of his tongue, a quieting of the “storm” of language. It is the example of Bishop Ambrose which teaches him a nondiscursive spirituality of silence (“his voice was silent and his tongue was still”).28 That is why his “autobiography” ends with an exegetic reading of Genesis, a reading that puts the narrative chapters under erasure and eliminates all further “personal” or “literary” use of language by the author. Augustine becomes filled with the otherness of God and transcends his corporeality as he reaches a spiritual resting point in the Word of God, and in the text of Genesis. From then on, his use of language is confined to its ontological purposes: words are signifiers used to convey the transcendental signified, God.
Angelou’s narrator also wants “to achieve perfect personal silence” as a means of redemption from the “evilness flowing through [her] body.” That is why she quiets her tongue and thus removes herself from human society. But she cannot find peace in God because she had already “sworn on the Bible that everything [she] said would be the truth, the whole truth, so help [her] God” (IK 71). And the God she knows is not a warm, loving black father; rather she imagines him looking like the policeman who announces to her family the death of Mr. Freeman: “Had they found out about the lie? . . . The man in our living room was taller than the sky and whiter than my image of God. He just didn’t have the beard” (71). So she creeps into a cocoon of numbness and becomes almost catatonic, all her senses dulled: she hears people’s voices as though muffled, cannot perceive colors very well, and forgets names. Meanwhile, her brother Bailey is becoming adept at using his “silver tongue” to shape words and “two-pronged sentences” (76) of sarcasm and jokes that enchant the rural community of Stamps, where they have both returned after the trial. Bailey is becoming the consumate con artist while the girl is sinking deeper into silence.
It is after a year in Stamps that she meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a very dark-skinned woman, whose color “was a rich black” (78). She is a maternal and nurturing figure like Momma, but her aristocratic demeanor and formal education make her an instant role model for Maya, the imaginative reader of English novels. This woman has a positive self-image and makes Maya “proud to be a Negro, just by being herself” (79). As a narrative figure, she is the opposite of the tall white godlike policeman, and she becomes Maya’s savior, a sort of tribal deity who helps her reevaluate her position within the community as well as the community’s virtues. Maya begins to compare the “uneducated” speech patterns of her grandmother unfavorably to Mrs. Flowers’s perfect diction and elocution. The child begins to notice the “texture” of the human voice and simultaneously opens up to human language as Mrs. Flowers encourages her to read aloud and to try “to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible” (82). But she also teaches Maya that illiteracy is not ignorance and that in the “mother wit” of country people is “couched the collective wisdom of generations” (83). Thus, from the start, Maya is forestalled from a destructive temptation to hierarchize different cultural models or to devalue the “primitive” folk attitudes of her rural background—an insight which Angelou the writer surely owes to her familiarity with Hurston’s work.
Mrs. Flowers recites A Tale of Two Cities and Maya hears poetry “for the first time” (84) in her life:
“It was the best of times and the worst of times. ...” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word. [84; my italics]
In contrast to the noise and “riot of sound” that make her deaf to the world and to herself, the narrator now discovers “vocal writing”: the materiality of language, the self-referential nature of the poetic word, “the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels” as Barthes would suggest. She hears the sounds but does not understand their meaning, because meaning is not important. Language becomes an arbitrary system of signs not grounded in external reality, especially not in the transcendent meaningful reality of God but rather in the pure, playful immanence of sounds. The sensual joy of literature favors a process of ecstasis and self-dispossession as Maya escapes through imagination:
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done ...” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness. [84; my italics]
Augustine too finds “selflessness” in reading: it is the process of reading which allows him to absorb in his human, historical, linear dimension the timelessness of eternal substance, the plenitude of intercourse and communion with God, and thus to return to his transcendent origins. His narrative and decentered use of language makes way for a selfless and silent disappearance into God’s otherness which becomes his ideal self. And we may also recall here Nietzsche’s warnings about “selflessness,” which reading can favor, although it is also the source of great happiness: “Come to me pleasant, brilliant, clever books.”29 For Augustine, “selflessness” is deference to God; for Nietzsche, it is the alienation by our cultural selves of our creatural, animal, and biocentric drives.
Reading, for Maya, is also depersonalizing, but this depersonalization returns her instead to the collectively human dimensions she had forsaken, with language, in her attempt to shield herself from the wrath of God the Father. Reading enables her to enter into a human dialogue with Mrs. Flowers, to discover a loving and nurturing intellectual relationship. She loses her self but merges with a community of others. Bertha Flowers is an ideal other but not a mirroring presence: she mediates and guides Maya’s entry into a multiplicity of “private lives,” which can only enlarge and enrich the girl’s point of view, as they become her frames of reference, her lifelines to adulthood. It is worth noting that the literary texts Maya actually mentions correspond to the two secular poles discussed in this chapter, the folk tradition and literary discourse. Some critics read Beowulf as a medieval folktale,30 and Oliver Twist is a fictional autobiographical narrative. In this and many other such instances of situational self-reflexivity,31 the narrative signals to us the frame of reference within which it attempts to situate itself. It thus encodes models of reading appropriate to its messages and intrinsic to its structure, offering to the attentive reader the key paradigms needed for interpretative analysis.
Another such instance of situational self-reflexivity, this one within the religious mode, occurs when Maya starts having “secret crawl[s] through neighborhood churches” (SS, 28), in search of a way to get back in touch with a heritage and a territory that are gradually eroding under Tosh’s white influence. She visits a black fundamentalist Baptist church and the text for the sermon is from the Old Testament: “Dry Bones in the Valley.” The preacher is a master of his craft: “He told the story simply at first, weaving a quiet web around us all, binding us into the wonder of faith and the power of God” (31). Hypnotized by his style, she joins in the dancing and singing trances and is “reborn” as she surrenders to the power of the community. The teaching of this particular sermon, as she describes it, is a metaphor for the process of autobiography and anamnesis: “I knew of no teaching more positive than the legend which said that will and faith caused a dismembered skeleton, dry on the desert floor, to knit back together and walk” (SS 31; my italics). To re-member and piece together the past in the hope of achieving a degree of self-integration within language which will miraculously redeem her, save her from death and emptiness, indeed give her immortality, is the acknowledged project of writing for Maya. This “legend” of the Old Testament is a powerful way for her to get back in touch with her vernacular tradition after her more “cerebral” excursus into “high” art and literature.
If, living with Tosh, she begins to miss her “religious” tradition, with Make and in his political milieu she will miss “literature.” This movement back and forth between religion and literature is dialectical only in appearance, for in both traditions she manages to extract the means of communication, the techniques of storytelling, which help her learn and refine her craft as a writer. She rejects the “white God” of religion but retrieves the cultural heritage of the black church, the sermons and the music, the gospel songs and spirituals, which are so close to the secular blues. When she starts going to church secretly, it is the music that attracts her at first: “The spirituals and gospel songs were sweeter than sugar” (28). This contact with the culture of her slave ancestors keeps her firmly anchored in the reality of her past, putting into perspective the “cerebral exercises and intellectual exchange” (SS 29) that were the basis of her relationship to Tosh. This episode is another allegorical representation within the “autobiographical” text of the history of black people in America. Religious gatherings were forbidden to slaves. Here, Tosh is violently opposed to religion. The slaves would still gather secretly to sing and chant and pray for “freedom” (usually in an afterlife) and to ritualistically glorify death as a release from the ills of this world. The narrator’s and Tosh’s relationship thus takes on mythic dimensions as it symbolizes an aspect of race (or master-slave) relations during preabolition days. Religion, like literacy, was considered a potentially subversive instrument in the hands of the slaves, and the masters needed to prevent, or severely repress, any hint of resistance or disobedience. Hence the “secret meetings in the woods to praise God (’For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’)” as the narrator recalls her great-grandmother, the former slave, teaching her (SS 28). Her secret church visits echo and connote that historical past.
Revival services and sermons are a locus classicus of black autobiographical narratives, and the treatment they receive varies according to the degree of alienation the narrator feels toward the evangelism of the black church. Not all black writers share An-gelou’s belief in the positive elements of black religion. Richard Wright is bitterly opposed to religious rhetoric, believing that it generates hypocrisy, sadism, cruelty, and hatred. Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson do not share her emotional response to revivalism. Johnson, for example, has a patronizing and humorous attitude toward the simple faith of southern blacks. Participating in a revival service, he falls asleep, and when someone shakes him, he pretends to be in a trance, and wakes up fully only to recount a “vision” and thus avoid blame.32 His distance and detachment are in contrast to Maya’s surrender to the electrifying atmosphere of the Baptist church. As narrator, she handles the scene with irony and humor; but it is a wry commentary, after the fact, on her capacity for losing herself in the folk process of religious revival, for undergoing an emotional “rebirth.”
Structurally, this episode of “rebirth” in the third volume, is a counterpoint to the narrative segment dealing with poetry and Mrs. Flowers in the first volume. Initially, Maya is reborn when she reenters the community of speaking humans via the medium of literature. Here, by contrast, we have a “religious” rebirth in the traditional revival mode: it is in fact a return to her black folk background. She succeeds in avoiding conflict between the various traditions as she adopts from each one the elements that are truly a part of “popular” or “vernacular” culture, be it folk tales or folk poems, (fictional) personal narratives, gospels, spirituals, or blues. The experience of rebirth could thus be seen as an exorcism from the self of those “polluting” thoughts and beliefs that lead to the devaluing of the collective wisdom and “mother wit” of her black heritage. With Tosh, the white atheist, it is the dryness of her overly refined life-style which begins to weigh on her: “After watching the multicolored people in church dressed in their gay Sunday finery and praising their Maker with loud voices and sensual movements, Tosh and my house looked very pale. Van Gogh and Klee posters which would please me a day later seemed irrelevant. The scatter rugs, placed so artfully the day before, appeared pretentious” (SS 29). Clearly, “the multicolored people” are so not just because of their “Sunday finery” but because the skin color of “black” people runs the gamut from the “fresh-butter color” of her mother (IK 49) to the “rich black . . . plum” of Mrs. Flowers (78), with all the intermediate variations: the “brown moon” of Momma’s face (26), the “dark-chocolate” skin of her best friend, Louise (118): “Butter-colored, honey-brown, lemon- and olive-skinned. Chocolate and plum-blue, peaches-and-cream. Cream. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. I wondered why my people described our colors in terms of something good to eat” (GT 14; my italics). In variety and heterogeneity there is a sensual pleasure upon which her talent feeds (much as Augustine tells of “feeding” on God [“fruens te” 4:1]). Marriage to Tosh is a lonely and marginalizing experience, like her year of silence. By contrast, whenever she is integrated in a group of heterogeneous—though marginal—individuals, she feels truly comfortable. It is thus clear that the search for community and audience informs the whole process of narration for Angelou.
The month she spends hiding in a junkyard at the age of sixteen provides the first such experience of real community: a “collage of Negro, Mexican and white” (IK 214) homeless, outcast children become her “family.” Liliane K. Arenberg has pointed out that “of signal importance is that these children disprove the racial prejudice—and its concurrent death fantasies—of her earlier experiences.”33 She sleeps in a wrecked car, spends the day scavenging, and learns to survive against the odds. Instead of being acted upon, she increasingly gains control by acquiring useful skills: “During the month that I spent in the yard, I learned to drive . . . to curse and to dance” (215). Her brief stay in this small utopia—ironically referred to as Brobdingnag—gives her the self-confidence to accept the perniciousness of the real world while learning to shield herself from it and to use it to her advantage: “Odd that the homeless children, the silt of war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man. After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life” (IK 216). This “ad hoc community” of multicolored children teaches her peace. Meanwhile the bulk of the adults are literally and figuratively engaged in war (World War II). Her experience of being unquestioningly accepted changes her completely, “dislodge[s] the familiar insecurity” (216) of displacement and dis-ease which had reached its apex when she was stabbed by Dolores, her father’s girlfriend. Textually, she manages to encode a similar variety and diversity because she draws on so many traditions and weaves them into a narrative that integrates as many styles and influences as the “multicolored people” of the church gathering and the junkyard do. We are truly in the realm of bricolage here: biological miscegenation, social “junk” or “silt,” and textual braiding, or métissage, of traditions.
Con Artists and Storytellers
In his discussion of Homer’s Odyssey, Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes among three properties of speech : speech-as-action, or parole-action, speech-as-narrative, or parole-récit, and feigned speech, or parole feinte. The last, he says, belongs simultaneously to both of the first two categories because it frees the sign from the referent (as in a récit, or tale) with the express purpose of performing an act conveying information that can affect reality (as in speech-as-action). Feigned speech, then, is always performative.34
In talking about the “tactics” and “stratagems” black narrators use to avoid dealing directly with “truth,” Angelou stresses the performative aspect of Momma’s cautious means of communication. We have seen how she signifies upon this tradition in her use of fictional narrative devices and in her naming, but Angelou also makes use of vernacular traditions that represent a purely constative case of “speech-as-narrative.” This is a mode of oral narrative that can be divided into three categories: “poetic” speech (toasts and jokes), ghost stories, and fantasy.
First, the poetry of Maya’s maternal uncles. They represent the urban traditions; they like to gossip, tell jokes, and roughhouse. Theirs, however, is a totally gratuitous and playful love of words: “Uncle Tommy . . . strung ordinary sentences together and they came out sounding either like the most profane curses or like comical poetry” (IK 56). The hearer is completely free to adduce his own meaning from Uncle Tommy’s droll statements. He is a deft and natural comedian, whose purpose is only to entertain and thereby to reinforce an existing sense of community. The Baxter clan is a tightly knit, highly competitive group in which each individual must pull his own weight and do so with ease and aplomb. They have a high tolerance for variety and difference, so long as this difference does not reflect negatively on their strong sense of family. Here parole-récit is a humorous art and discourse, playful pleasure.
Second, the popular oral tradition of ghost stories, which help pass the time on long winter nights. The storytellers usually try “to best each other in telling lurid tales of ghosts and hants, banshees and juju, voodoo and other anti-life stories” (IK 133). Audience and performers share a common fascination for evoking the unknown, for conjuring the eerie. Again, the sense of community is intact. The purpose of these ghost stories is commonly understood: to frighten and entertain, to reinforce rural superstitions or old African beliefs, while the whole group shares sweet potatoes and peanuts slowly roasted under coals or ashes. In an episode of chapter 22 the visitor who comes to spend the stormy evening with them shares their dinner and impersonates his dead wife as he tells a ghoulish tale of her apparitions in the night. Like the parasite who entertains his hosts, he gets nourishment and pays it back with words.35 Of special interest in the staging of that episode is the intermingling of literature and folklore. Maya and Bailey are keeping warm by the potbellied stove while reading: he is immersed in Huckleberry Finn and she is rereading Jane Eyre. The arrival of the visitor interrupts that activity but the children remain suspended out of time as the ghost story inserts itself into their consciousness, becoming superimposed on the fantasy worlds of Twain and Bronte, worlds that happen to appeal to the same emotions: fascination with the unknown and escapism.
Third, fantasy, which is Maya’s forte. When Momma takes her to a bigoted dentist, Maya imagines a triumphant confrontation between them, her toothache abating as she dreams of her grandmother obliterating the evil Dr. Lincoln. In the embedded story that she recounts to herself to alleviate the pain, the most significant distortion of reality is in the speech patterns of Momma: “Her tongue had thinned and the words rolled off well enunciated. Enunciated and sharp like little claps of thunder” (IK 161). She fantasizes that the dentist, on the other hand, stutters, drools, and has a very humble voice. Momma is larger than life and can even “afford to slip into the vernacular because she ha[s] such eloquent command of English” (161; my italics). In other words, to use the vernacular is a conscious choice the writer can allow herself after she has shown her ability to articulate her point of view in the “King’s English.”
In this instance of alienated, imaginary discourse (wishful thinking and feelings of impotence before an all too powerful and degrading social system), the fundamental dis-ease of this marginal character reveals itself. The narrator’s conscious remarks about levels of language indicates that mastery of the master’s English is the sine qua non of any subversive intent in a fictive utterance. Her fantasy, a counterpoint to the later episode in the dead car junkyard, is like a science fiction tale. It does not claim to have a direct bearing on dailv reality, yet it satirizes the social structures that generate this alienated discourse, thus providing a powerful comment on reality. Its message is directed to Maya’s initial, original community, the one that is powerless, and peripheral to the larger social sphere where Dr. Lincolns gravitate: yet, she implies, her community could wield mythic force (like Momma) if only it cared to appropriate (the master’s) language.
As is becoming clear, the narrator learns many different styles of human communication from her extended family’s tale telling, escapist tales that are antilife (like ghost stories) or triumphant (like her fantasy world in which villains are dispatched). But escapist tales involve no risks, and the story is a pleasurable (if sometimes scary) experience for both narrator and narratee(s). The didactic intent, if it exists, is of secondary importance. The primary consideration is the art of entertaining an audience whose presence and feedback are unproblematic.
But what happens when the storyteller becomes alienated from this initial community? Language then becomes a means of obtaining what is not willingly given, that is, attention, justice, reparation, and so on. And indeed it would seem that for Angelou, the process of writing is a way of articulating those particular alienations and the demands that ensue. To judge by her use of standard English (rather than dialectal speech patterns), it would seem that she aims her book at a primarily “white” audience of urbanized and educated readers. She does use some slang and colloquialisms, but her grammar is almost always standard, as is her spelling. Discussing her schooling in San Francisco, she says: “In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort” (IK 191; my italics).
The “written word” is directed toward an audience that may not have the patience to decode the vernacular. Angelou, the “messenger,” thus acts as translator. More important, however, Angelou self-consciously makes a distinction between written and oral which implies that mastery of the written language is the prerequisite to mastery over one’s fate. Just as she had realized, with Mrs. Flowers, that “language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals” (IK 82), she now asserts that education and the ability to write correctly are tools in the hands of the oppressed, tools that must be honed and sharpened, the better to serve their purpose of communication. Since her stance, as indicated before, is clearly one of engagement, she thus assumes a responsibilty which can be fulfilled only if the “written word” is an instrument of social change. It is clear that she sees language as a tool that helps shape destiny. She is interested in its performative as well as its purely sensual aspects.36 Thus when her brother Bailey becomes estranged from his family and gets into drugs, gangs, and pimping, she notes: “His language had changed. He was forever dropping slangy terms into his sentences like dumplings in a pot” (IK 217), whereas he had been apt at manipulating speech patterns: “The double entendres, the twopronged sentences, slid over his tongue to dart rapier-like into anything that happened to be in the way” (IK 76). He could still, when arguing with his mother, be a master of sharp wit: “Bailey looped his language around his tongue and issued it out to Mother in alum drops” (IK 219). But when trying to articulate, under stress, his love/hate relationship to ruthless Vivian, who pushes her children out of the nest, Bailey exerts control over his feelings by resorting to careful, almost painful efforts of language: “he chose his words with the precision of a Sunday school teacher” (IK 223).
Maya too makes great efforts to please her mother. She drops her southern euphemisms (cf. IK 234). She tries to become self-sufficient and worldly and acquires the difficult art of “dexterous lying” (229) in order to obtain what she wants. In one case, she wants a job as streetcar conductor; she wants to be the first black San Francisco “conductorette.” As she goes to apply for the job, she must write a resume: “Sitting at a side table my mind and I wove a cat’s ladder of near truths and total lies. I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas” (IK 229). She does get the job and acquires new status in her mother’s eyes. It is hard-earned status, for between Bailey and Vivian, the expert verbal duelists, she is either a neutral third and excluded middle or a mediating confidante in their dialogue of deaf ears. Her normal tendency being to avoid confrontation, she prefers to give up territory and remain silent.37 As she explains, she does not dare compete with, or interfere in, Vivian’s vast capacity to enjoy life and to fly into legendary rages: “Her tongue was sharper than the creases in zoot pants and I knew better than to try to best her. I said nothing” (GT 83).
In order to handle her own family, the narrator learns from a position of weakness how to swerve and to survive. This knowledge prepares her for life in white society, where the safest strategy is to wear masks: “Never let white folks know what you really think. If you’re sad, laugh. If you’re bleeding inside, dance” (GT 86). This training in adaptive behavior is an apprenticeship in dissimulation, a lesson in how to become a trickster, a manipulator of signs, a con artist and a writer. The trickster is like the fool, the one who draws attention to the king’s nakedness and satirizes the accepted norms of a social order. In a pragmatic sense, though, for the satire or social critique to be effective it must be disguised, guileful, or artful, but not so deceitful as to be completely misunderstood, not so deceptive as to make us miss its “point.” Of paramount importance, then, is the sense of an audience whose attention must be captured and retained. As a liminal figure, caught between her mother and brother, who are “entangled in the Oedipal skein” (IK 218), the narrator finds her ability to make herself heard severely curtailed. Her newfound sense of self-certainty and community after the junkyard experience collapses on itself as she reenters family life. She cannot share that experience, tell that tale, because her primary audience is indifferent and impatient. Busy Vivian has no time for details and increasingly slick Bailey is orbiting a different planet, no longer the brother she knew: “He may have been glad to see me, but he didn’t act much like it. When I tried to tell him of my adventures and misadventures, he responded with a casual indifference which stilled the tale on my lips” (IK 217). Having a story to tell and the confidence to do so is not enough. Interaction with a real or virtual hearer is an integral part of the storytelling situation. At the end of the first volume, the narrator has found her voice, literally (with Mrs. Flowers) and figuratively (she now has a message to transmit). But she has no audience, or more precisely, her audience’s indifference forces her into self-imposed silence. This is the familiar position of the spokesperson who feels that s/he is preaching to those who don’t want to (can’t) hear and who, consequently, either gives up, tries to find alternate means of reaching an audience, or resorts to various violent and confrontational tactics.
Of these alternatives, however, the only one possible for the artist is to seek means of expression which will convey her point of view without provoking blinding fear, disbelief, utter revulsion, and the concurrent tuning out of the audience. Perhaps it was Billie Holiday, the blues singer, who best exemplified that dilemma when she recalled her first rehearsals of the song “Strange Fruit,” from Lewis Allan’s story of a lynching: “I worked like the devil on it because. I was never sure . . . I could get across to a plush night-club audience the things that it meant to me.”38 When there is no shared experience between singer and audience, the impact of the song can only be weighed hypothetically. Translation of the content into a form of expression that appeals to the subjective desires of the audience and facilitates their entry into the world of the other is hard work for the performer and becomes inseparable from her message.
As singer, dancer, and performer, Maya Angelou has an acute sense of audience interaction. She thus stages her own alienated relationship to her hypothetical reader, knowing full well that the reader must be “conned” into believing that she has a privileged relation to an autobiographical “truth,” which the rhetorical features of her style explicitly problematize. This double bind determines her narrative choices of events and metaphors. In the narrative segment that describes her initial attempts at tale telling within the confines of her own indifferent family, we clearly see her giving up. At the other extreme, when she and Bailey come back south to live in the store after the St. Louis episode, the sense of community is unquestioned. All of Stamps would come to the store to be entertained with stories of their trip north, enabling Bailey to sharpen his “silver tongue” at the expense of the naive country folk. His audience is clearly defined and eager to lend its ears, even if he is shown to be considerably alienated from the rural people toward whom he directs his sarcasms. His experience of the urban North has estranged him from this initial community. Congruence between teller and listener need not be perfect if the teller has sufficient firsthand knowledge of the listener’s general frame of reference and can tailor his discourse to (partially) fit that frame.
These linguistic skills differ only in degree from those of the successful and affluent gamblers (or numbers men), the real con men, their mother’s friends. Foremost among them is Daddy Clidell, who introduces Maya to the colorful characters of the black underground and teaches her the fine art of swindling to keep her from ever becoming “anybody’s mark” (IK 187). From Clidell’s tales emerges a single pattern: the more stupid the con man acts, the more likely he is to win over his arrogant white “mark.” This kind of ingenuity gives the con man hero status in the ghetto, where the ability to turn “the crumbs from his country’s table . . . [into] a Lucullan feast” (190) is the most admired of skills. This skill rests on the culture-hero’s ability to take control of a situation and assume certain risks while appearing to relinquish all authority. In other words, it involves a carefully planned strategem of deception, feigning, and role playing. We have already seen that the outcome of the rape trial had depended on Maya’s ability to do just that: to decode the social system and respond to it in a deceitful way that put her in control. Her lie, or parole feinte, brought her to her mother’s arms, “her desired destination” (71), while putting her at risk in the eyes of God. For the con artist, the aim is to spin a tale—parole feinte—with the express purpose of swindling the mark and profiting by it. The risk involved is in the eyes of the law: the punishment may be prison if the swindler is caught. In both cases, control puts the protagonist at risk with respect to the symbolic (religious or social) order and hence bears tragic or heroic dimensions. To have lied was deeply disturbing for Maya, the child raised in a fundamentalist milieu, and that was the religious tragedy of her success in the courtroom. What she now learns from these smart tricksters is the poetic justice of fighting back with tall tales and becoming wealthy in the bargain. Only then does she see the possibility of becoming the heroine of such triumphant tales.
At the end of her fourth volume, Angelou recounts a tale of Brer Rabbit: how he succeeded in winning his freedom from the angry farmer by pretending to be more afraid of the thorny briar patch than of the farmer’s cooking pot. She identifies completely with Brer Rabbit, feeling just as free, standing in the library of the newsroom where she has earned the right to work and write for a living, despite Vusumzi Make’s pompous initial objections. She has safeguarded his sense of honor by a ritualistic and complex appeal to his desire for power, control, and authority. In this instance, Maya is the fool and Make, the mark: all previous and implicit racial connotations in the tale of Brer Rabbit undergo a radical transformation. On the level of signifiers, the only remaining element of the tale is that power and control are best defined by an authoritative use of language. Power resides in the narrative figure, Maya, who can best reach out to the other, Make, and articulate his desires in terms of her needs. This is a technique that the narrative text shows Maya learning from many sources: her oral tradition as well as her newly acquired skills as a dancer and performer. What this suggests in terms of audience interaction is that Angelou’s narrator, like Brer Rabbit, often seems to be telling us just what we want to hear, as “unaware persons” deserving only “a part of the truth.” Once we understand her “tactics” and “stratagems,” however, it becomes clear that for her, writing is a way of claiming her territory from forces that refuse to grant it, a way of telling us “not where she has been, but where she is going.” Her technique, then would correspond exactly to what Michel de Certeau has termed “the practice of everyday life”: an art of storytelling like the one Homer and the Greeks practiced and the con artists of today continue to perfect. It is a way of operating within a system of power which allows the “weak” to seize victories over the “strong” by employing “tactics” known to the Greeks under the name of mētis. It is a form of intelligence and savoir faire, a resourcefulness and an opportunism that is the hallmark of those who will never be the masters of the terrain on which their daily struggles are fought but who develop in practice multiple and polyvalent means of survival that allow them to elude that power system successfully.39 The double-voiced nature of Angelou’s text allows her to oppose an oppressive social system without risk of becoming a term within that system, since a part of her message—because it relies on indirect “signifying” practices—will always elude any direct attempt to inscribe it within the general frame of that dominant discourse. This elusiveness bespeaks a form of alienation differing only in degree from Momma’s “secretiveness and suspiciousness” and inherent in all survival strategies.
Indeed, in the briar patch Brer Rabbit is free to claim his space in the communal warren, whereas in the library, Angelou relentlessly explores the constantly changing boundaries of alienated human communication. We have the distinct feeling that she would like (us) to believe that her tale is a triumphant one but cannot quite convince herself of it. Hers is a parole feinte that mourns the loss of the illusory possibility of pure parole-récit, of direct and unmediated communication with interlocutors who share the same referential and mythic world as she does. In other words, she mourns the disappearance of a mirage, the mirage that is Africa for the children of the colonialist diaspora.
As will be seen in the next chapter, the attraction “Africa” as illusory reality exerts on New World blacks is an issue Maryse Condé will face. She raises disturbing questions about the relationship between past realities and present metaphors, and these questions remain unanswered in her narrative. But by denouncing some of the myths that encourage a sterile fixation on imaginary realities, she provides a critical framework that demonstrates the danger of internalizing negative perspectives on self and other, on language and communication.
1Maya Angelou, interview with Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), pp. 2, 6, hereinafter CT; Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 275, 278. I shall be using the following editions and abbreviations of Angelou’s works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1970): IK; Gather Together in My Name (New York: Random House, 1974): GT; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas (New York: Random House, 1976): SS; and The Heart of a Woman (New York: Random House, 1981): HW. This chapter was written before the publication of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (New York: Random House, 1986).
2See Ross Chambers, “An Address in the Country: Mallarmé and the Kinds of Literary Context,” French Forum 11 (May 1986), 199–215 (199).
3For an excellent study of the “conjure” folk tradition in black women writers, see Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and the Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
4See the article by Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, “The Metaphysics of Matrilinearism in Women’s Autobiography: Studies of Mead’s Blackberry Winter, Hell-man’s Pentimento, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sinks, and Kingston’s Woman Warrior,” in Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle C. Jelinek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), pp. 180–205. This critic discussed the Venus/ Demeter archetypes in relation to the Vivian Baxter-Momma Henderson couple (p. 198).
5Tzvetan Todorov, Literature and Its Theorists: A Personal View of Twentieth-Century Criticism, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 165.
6Scanning the text for overt or covert references to well-known authors or fictional characters, I arbitrarily stopped counting at 100 at the end of the third volume, and I am not including in that figure the many folk poems, spirituals, composers, and songwriters also mentioned.
7George E. Kent, “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition,” Kansas Quarterly 7 (Summer 1975), 75.
8The phrase is Nietzsche’s in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1967), p. 153.
9Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Signet, 1977), p. 341.
10Nikki Giovanni, Gemini (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 145, 124.
11Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), pp. 66–67.
12“God Himself is Mahāmāyā, who deludes the world with her illusion and conjures up the magic of creation, preservation, and destruction. She has spread this veil of ignorance before our eyes,” The Gospel of S’rī Rāmakrishna, p. 116, as quoted in Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 569. I am not suggesting that Angelou uses Vedantic philosophy consciously. I am merely making connections which the polysemic nature of such proper nouns allows me to make as reader of her text.
13Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 102.
14See for example IK 230; GT 3; SS 8, 24, 25, 110, 179; HW 29, 34, 224, 263: These repetitions clearly underscore the picaresque themes.
15Watt, p. 102.
16Kent, p. 75.
17Ronnie Scharfman’s statement that a “feminist aesthetic can shed new light on . . . the possible bonds between the text as mother, and the daughter-reader it produces” is highly appropriate here. See “Mirroring and Mothering in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981), 88–106 (106). As I try to make clear, however, in Angelou’s case, the mother-text is a “male” text, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. As a fictional character, Moll Flanders, like Vivian Baxter, is a mediator for Maya: Moll mediates the (male) literary tradition, whereas Vivian relays the (male) black vernacular. Again, it is important to note that these are connections that I am making as a reader familiar with both English eighteenth-century narratives and traditional African and Afro-American cultures. The point is not whether Angelou intended to suggest the possibility of such playful associations. Rather, I contend that the dynamism of the text freely and ironically generates those meanings.
18On “anxiety of authorship,” see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 45–92 especially.
19Watt, p. 99.
20Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 125.
21Watt, pp. 127, 107.
22Stephen Butterfield, Black Autobiography in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974), pp. 207–8.
23Sidonie Ann Smith, “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou’s Quest after Self-Acceptance,” Southern Humanities Review 7 (1973), 365–75, gives a detailed account of the various events that lead to the narrator’s sense of always being out of place. My approach and conclusions differ from Smith’s, however.
24Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” reprinted in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: Norton, 1985), p. 2375.
25I am not trying to minimize the tragedy of sexual exploitation of the young by family members. I do want to emphasize (1) that it is different only in degree from other forms of physical abuse and torture and (2) that Angelou’s text implies that the social attribution of a negative (polluting) value to the sexual nature of the offense is more damaging in the long run that the act of rape itself.
26On June 18, 1986, Maya Angelou was on the The Oprah Winfrey Show, ABC-TV, Channel 7, Chicago, talking about her most recent work, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Discussing her childhood and the events surrounding the rape trial, as recounted in I Know, she said “From the age of seven-and-a-half till twelve, my whole body became one big ear: I memorized poetry but didn’t speak . . . because my voice had killed that man.” This image of “one big ear” is familiar to readers of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (see “On Redemption,”, p. 249) and has inspired Derrida’s commentary on Nietzsche’s “Logic of the Living Feminine,” in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 3.
27See the Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. “Philomela.”
28Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 29, 114. The Latin is from the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977). References to book and chapter are 1:8, 4:3, and on fornication, 1:3, 2:6, 4:2, 5:12.
29Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, from On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), p. 242.
30See Daniel R. Barnes, “Folktale Morphology and the Structure of Beowulf,” Speculum 45 (1970). This critic uses Vladimir Propp’s system to argue that point.
31See Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 24–28.
32James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (New York: Viking Press, 1933), p. 26.
33Liliane K. Arenberg, “Death as Metaphor of Self in 1 Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” College Language Association Journal 20 (1976), 290.
34Tzvetan Todorov, Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971), pp. 66–77, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 56–59. Jonathan Culler has taken Todorov to task for using this particular linguistic schema as a means of interpretation of literary works. See Structuralist Poetics (London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 108–9.1 suggest that Culler ignores the contextually problematic nature of exchange and dialogue, as studied by Todorov: cf. p. 75, “Le contenu de l’énoncé est entièrement dicté par le procès d’énonciation [the content of what is spoken is entirely dictated by the speech-act]” (p. 62, my italics). Culler then concludes by raising the very issue he has obfuscated in Todorov: “The linguistic model . . . has helped to provide a perspective, but as yet we understand very little about how we read” (p. 265; my italics). I will return to Todorov’s categories.
35See Michel Serres, he Parasite (Paris: Grasset, 1980), especially pp. 49–55: “Picaresques et cybernétiques—la nouvelle balance.” Also Chambers, Story and Situation, pp. 181–204.
36Following Todorov, p. 72, we could then say that she views her narrative as a parole feinte, since “la parole feinte est à la fois récit et action [feigned speech is both narrative and action]” (p. 60), at once constative and performative. I will return to this.
37We could see this as an implicit comment on the historical position of black women caught in the conflict between white America (Vivian) and black males (Bailey).
38Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues, her autobiography written with William Dufty (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 84. This book and Billie Holiday’s mythical real life are implicit intertexts of Angelou’s autobiography.
39See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); also Marcel Détienne and Jean Pierre Vernant, Les Ruses de l’intelligence: La Mētis des Grecs (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), pp. 3–9, for example, and their discussion of Homer’s Iliad; also Sarah Kofman, Comment s’en sortir (Paris: Gallilée, 1984), p. 36.