Explore women flourish in a patriarchal society. The

Explore the
significance of female relationships within a strongly patriarchal society as
depicted by Alice Walker in The Color
Purple and Maya Angelou in I Know Why
the Caged Bird Sings.

 

The main
theme I will focus on in comparing The
Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings is the importance these writers express in regard to female
relationships to help women flourish in a patriarchal society. The female
relationships depicted in both texts show how these bonds create empowerment of
the female characters and how they help each other to overcome their struggles
against the brutality of society. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that covers the early 20th
century, during which factors such as racism, sexism, female oppression and
domestic abuse were very much thriving in Rural Georgia thus, female
relationships were needed to confide in one another. As such, Angelou’s
autobiography is set between the 1930s to 1950s, and shows that female
relationships matter in the still-patriarchal society in which she finds
herself in, to an extent that her self-esteem was at its lowest from all the
immoral impacts of racism, sexism and abuse she has experienced in her
lifetime. Both authors are influential figures in the
Civil Rights era, as their work is a reflection on how people of colour were
discriminated upon and treated unfairly in society. By examining these texts, it will
be possible to explore how both prominent women of colour preach the message
that women need other women to support each other to discover their true,
independent selves.

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Walker
presents the bond between two sisters as one way in which Celie survives the
harshness of the patriarchal society of the Southern states of America in the
early 20th century. Walker’s choice of using sisters who can draw
strength from each other contrasts with I
Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as
Angelou’s autobiographical work did not allow her the luxury of being able to
create sisters who could support each other. However, she does highlight the
importance of siblings providing support through the characters of herself and
her brother, Bailey Jr. Gross refers to Angelou’s “few years of almost complete
silence” when “she continued to speak to her brother Bailey” which proves that
in the strength of their relationship, despite the trauma she endured that
prompted a vow to not speak, she still decided to communicate with her brother
and it “served her well” 1 . Angelou
introduces her influential connection with her brother in chapter 4 of the
autobiography by contrasting herself with him through physical beauty. Angelou
describes herself as “big, elbowy and grating” (page 24), whereas, Bailey was “small,
graceful and smooth” (page 24). Maya evidently has self-esteem issues because
of the hurtful words many have pointed out. 
The term “elbowy”, not being an actual word, confirms this is an
adaptation to hearing others around her constantly say it to her and therefore she
has mirrored the word. This forces the reader to understand how Maya is degraded
to believe she is undesirable. Angelou goes on to say their playmates described
her skin a “shit colour”, in
contrast to her brother having “velvet-black skin”. (page 24). The use of the adjectives
“velvet-black”, illustrates a deluxe texture with a sense of richness and
cleanness to his skin whereas, the bland use of Maya being a ‘shit colour’ not
only shows the outrageous offense and blatant disrespect intended towards her,
but, also displays an image of uncleanness, dirt and foul smells to mind. In
1930-1950, these degrading terms demonstrate the ignorance of the ‘playmates’
and how they divide one skin tone in two complete opposite adjectives for the
aim of hurting one, and praising the other. Angelou purposely provided the raw
worded truth through these upsetting, repulsive words, ultimately impacting Maya’s
self-image as it is constant, and from family members and very revolting words
that should not be said to anyone, especially a child. However, through all of
this, their bond is endless and admirable as Maya believed ‘he loved me’ which
could reassure Maya that she is not as foul as people say she is because of her
brother’s love for her. In The Color
Purple, although the sisters Celie and Nettie are separated for most part
of the novel, they still write to each other because of their bond and believe
in each other’s wellbeing. Celie continuously looked out for her sister
from the beginning to the end because of the care and compassion of Nettie’s
wellbeing. Celie witnesses their stepfather “looking at (her)
little sister”, but she reassures Nettie that she will “take care of (her)” which
allows the reader to see that Celie does have strength inside of her when it comes
to people who matter to her. This is important in this era as this conveys the
two females in the novel to believe in each other and it helps Celie get
through her life feeling that Nettie is alive. This bond helps her get through
it therefore, emphasising the importance of the mutual love and respect they
have for each other in their sister relationship.

Structurally,
from the beginning of the novel, to midway, Walker inputs a religious reference
as Celie starts her letters with ‘Dear God’. The power held over her is immense
as this is done because her father threatens her to ‘not tell nobody but God.’.
This beginning sentence straight away establishes the male dominance within the
household. Celie is being silenced over her father’s traumatic abuse and so
Celie believes ‘God’ is who she can confide in. Being religious was the norm in
1930’s society as many people attended local churches and believed in God, so
writing letters, forces the reader to believe Celie feels more assured when she
writes to God, almost like a prayer. As Celie discovers her beloved sister is
alive, she refers to her letters as ‘Dear Nettie’. Walker intentionally does
this for the reader to witness the change in Celie as she grows as a person in mental
strength. Through the structure, from start to end, Walker purposely shows
Celie constantly developing in diverse ways, for instance, her grammar. At the
beginning of the novel, Walker portrays Celie as being extremely illiterate,
gripping the reader to have difficulty in reading the novel. This is a
reflection on the segregation in America which caused many young, black people
to remain uneducated being unable to read or write because of most schools
being opened to white people only. This discrimination establishes the norm for
both Celie and Maya to understand from an early age, where they belong in
society because of the unfair treatment of other people based on their skin
colour and gender. Similarly, Vivian Baxter, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made a passing comment on how she
cannot read. However gradually, in The
Color Purple, Celie’s
language becomes more articulate from her extended range of vocabulary as she
is able to write full sentences without any grammatical mistakes.  This shows her becoming much stronger minded
as she has learnt to be literate. Walker allows the reader to follow Celie as
she becomes a stronger female with much more self-esteem knowing she has her
little sister again. In I Know Why the
Caged Bird Sings, for Angelou, her chapters are written from memory as she
tries to recall the big points and the very details of her life. Therefore,
some other her chapters are long and short depending on her memory of her life.
She details a huge proportion of her life from childhood, as early as she can
remember, to when she gives birth to her only child into 36 chapters. Through these chapters, similarly
to Walker, we see Maya’s growth in mental strength through these chapters as
she grows up in life. The first chapters reflect the segregation of society and
introduces inequality because of her gender and race. Throughout the
autobiography, she is a victim and it seems like she is never in control, until
the time she runs away, it is only then that she finds she can be her own
person and be independent. Who she is at the end compared to the beginning is a
strong-willed individual who has come to peace with herself.

In both texts,
there is an occurred trauma that is a part of the significance of the
relationship between female figures. In I
Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, at just aged eight, Maya is sexually abused
by her mother’s lover, Mr Freeman. Angelou includes this obscure act in her
autobiography because of the important outcome that occurred. First off, this destroys
Maya’s identity and self-confidence, which also left her physically drained and
caused her to black out. As Mr Freeman is murdered, Maya decided she “had to
stop talking” as she believed her words might “poison people”. The use of alliteration
forces the reader to get a sense Maya’s thought process, as she thinks her speech
is a problem and she is going to eliminate this problem by not speaking because
she does not want to harm people. It also connotes abandonment as no one likes
to go near poison and it is deadly. The noun ‘poison’ can also be unstoppable
in comparison to Maya believing her lies are unstoppable. Maya gradually
overcame her fear of speech from her friendship with Mrs Bertha Flowers. This
significant female friendship showed a blossoming of Maya’s identity as she
learns to become literate because of Mrs Bertha Flowers encouraging literature
onto Maya. It also helps Maya in slowly piecing herself together again and
giving her a new identity which boosts her little confidence. This, of course,
became central to Angelou throughout her life as she became a writer and always
acknowledged the kindness Mrs Flowers showed to her. Critic Anita Sethi states that
“Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of
Mrs Bertha Flowers”.2
Similarly, in The Color Purple, Celie
is sexually abused by her stepfather (who she believes is her real father).
This occurs at the start of the novel and impacts Celie massively as she
becomes emotionally and physically isolated from everyone. Later, in the novel,
she breaks down in front of Shug when she tells her of the abuse and because of
her close, female relationship with Shug, she is helped to overcome this fear
of men.

 

It
is interesting that both Celie and Maya draw strength from beautiful women.
Once Celie first hears of Shug Avery, she is confused and asks, “What is it?”
but after she was shown a picture, Celie was stunned Shug “was a woman”,
describing her as “The most beautiful woman.” (page 8). Walker forces the lack
of portrayal for coloured women because Shug Avery was quite known, nevertheless,
Celie did not know of her existence. This emphasises Celie being lonesome and
isolated from the world as she is out of touch from reality because of her
traumatic experiences as these have hindered her to care about new things. Shug
has admirers from both men and women and has respect from Mr ____, as they used
to be lovers. Black women were admired too but sadly, it was mostly the women
who were considered beautiful. Shug goes on to become Celie’s prominent representation
of all the things a woman can achieve, whilst being her lover and devoted
friend. Walker expresses Shug’s constant assistance in urging Celie to become a
stronger, more confident version of herself through her teachings.

Similarly,
in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,
Vivian made Maya feel “struck dumb” with her “red lips” and “white teeth”. Vivian’s
“smile widened her mouth beyond her
cheeks” (Page 65) which expresses she is overcome with joy to see her
children after such a long time. This was described through Maya’s visual
representation of what she can see in front of her which, describes Vivian as
the most beautiful woman in her world. This contrasts to Maya’s own standards
of beauty as in the beginning of the autobiography, she visualises herself with
“long and blonde” hair, that she can “straighten” and a set of “blue eyes”
(page 4). This description is a stereotypical, white female’s appearance and
was a standard appearance. However, now that she has looked upon her mother’s
appearance with admiration, perhaps her beauty standards have altered. Maya still is conscious of her own appearance
because of the way she describes herself. Vivian uses her beauty to capture the
attention of men with quite a bit of money, which is a smart thing to do
because of the class systems which stem through how much money a person has,
and if this be the way Vivian can make money, then she will. Angelou knows her
“Mother’s beauty made her powerful” (page 220), and this power made Vivian
“unflinchingly honest” (page 220). This forces the reader to grasp Vivian as an
intelligent woman to an extent, because she deliberately uses her beauty for
power. It also shows Vivian’s persona as blunt because of her forward honesty
she voices to people, but also displays she is a strong female who Maya can
look up too in ways of sticking up for herself.

In
both texts, there is a mother and daughter relationship shown, and the
importance of these female figures in their lives. The significant thing to comprehend
is the absence of the mothers in both Maya’s and Celie’s lives. In The Color Purple, Walker presents the
danger of poor motherhood through the abuse from Celie’s mother that she
endures. Although, she is only mentioned a few times and passes away from
sickness at the beginning, she used to “cuss” Celie all the time, which shows
the reader, the toxic relationship Celie had with her mother. Still, Celie says
she is not mad at her mother, instead she “felt sorry for mama” because she
believed her stepfather’s lies killed her and so understands her mother’s
anger. However, in I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings, Maya has two mother figures in her life; Momma and Vivian
Baxter. They are both strong and supportive women who have different values.
Vivian is Maya and Bailey’s birth mother, and Annie Henderson (Momma) is their
grandma who took care of them for much of their childhood. Angelou portrays
Momma as a role model to Maya because of her strong belief in God and that she
owns the only store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas. Her store is a
symbol of success as it is a business owned by a black woman in the mid
-twentieth- century America, known for segregation. Angelou states the store
“looked like an unopened present from a stranger.”. This simile conveys the prime
importance the store means to her as it feels like a present to her.

 

 

In The Color Purple an equally vital component of Celie’s empowerment
is her newfound economic independence through the help of Shug. She urges Celie
to create her own business designing pants with her financial aid therefore,
helping Celie build up her future and a means of self-sufficiency. Similarly,
Maya becomes the first black, female streetcar conductor which was quite a historic
moment as this is a first. She got this job because she pursued it relentlessly.
Celie has taken sewing, traditionally a domestic chore, and turned it into an
instrument of independence. Walker presents the relationship between Shug and
Celie one that progressed in time because upon first meeting, Shug calls Celie “ugly”
to her face, then gradually, their relationship turns into friendship then finally,
to lovers, which awakens Celie’s sexual desires. Shug declares Celie a virgin
and renames her Miss Celie, giving Celie a new identity in both a figurative
and a literal sense. Shug’s pronouncement of Celie as a virgin and the new name
Shug gives Celie are critical to Celie’s empowerment to tell her own story and
to her sense of self because it helps her understand that she is in control of
her life now and she chooses to be who she wants to be. She also explains the
concept of virginity being something that only you control, and it is not a
physical factor. They do have a complicated relationship as Celie is Mr ____’s
new wife and Shug is Mr ____’s mistress, however, they end up putting that
behind them to focus on their relationship together.

                                                                                                                                          

 

To conclude, Angelou herself describes who she
was “owed” to was “Momma” because of her “solemn determination”, “Mrs Bertha
Flowers and her books”, “Bailey” and “his love”, Maya’s mother and her “gaiety”
and finally, “Miss Kirwin and her information” (page 233). Through hardship and
suffering both these female protagonists had to endure the raw brutality of
society.  The female relationships
throughout their lives that have helped them in overcoming barriers and finding
peace with themselves. They help each other to prosper and grow both physically
and mentally in a prejudiced society trying to put women in place. Critic
Walker-Barnes states that The Color Purple is “the story of people who learn
to resist the forces of racial and gender oppressions”3
which I agree with immensely as the female characters break down the gender
stereotypes and aspire to their maximum potential.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 
Gross, A
Robert  (2014)  “NEWSWEEK’S
ORIGINAL REVIEW OF MAYA ANGELOU’S ‘I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS”
 
 
Sethi,
Anita  (2013)  “The Guardian  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya
Angelou – Review”
 
Barnes-Walker, 

 

 

 

 

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1 Robert
A Gross

2 Anita Sethi

3
Walker-Barnes