“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” – Malcolm X
Black women have shown that they can withstand and overcome adversities in a society that predetermines that they will fail. From the era where enslavement was legal to today’s society, women of colour have always been depicted in a negative light. Black women, particularly those who are African-American, have been marginalised within a culture where their race is already viewed as inferior. Although these women face hardships merely for being their own selves, they have found liberation through the hardships that were intended to break them. Through books, television and the internet the world has been able to witness the struggle of the black woman. Their issues, concerns and passions are being brought forth not only to people within the black community but to the world on a global scale. The increased representation of women of colour in today’s media has resulted in their voices being heard louder than ever. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the #BlackLivesMatter website showcase the struggles that black women face and how their pain can be a source of strength.
Marguerite Ann Johnson, commonly known as Maya Angelou, embodies what it means to be a black woman who has overcome every adversity in her life and has done so with great poise and grace. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is more than just an autobiographical novel. It is an exploration of survival. It showcases the survival of a black Southern girl growing up in a society that devalues her beauty, talent and ambition. This novel is one that is still relatable to a contemporary audience as the plights told in Maya’s story still, despite legislative and social change, exist in this 21st century society. White oppression and institutionalised racism remain as leading issues that affect all black people, especially black women. Maya Angelou, as a beacon of hope, inspires women of colour in this novel to believe that they hold the power to become whatever they desire, regardless of how discouraging their past may have been.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has a plethora of influential black female figures who each contribute to enriching Maya’s character as a woman in her developmental years. Although her mother, Vivian, Grandmother Baxter, mentor Bertha Flowers and Momma experience the same mistreatment as Maya from their segregated society, they lead by example by never submitting to racist ignominies. These women implicitly teach Maya through their actions to be fearless in the eyes of the white man. Maya’s early life was filled with difficulties, more than the average child would face, but from these hardships she gained resilience and strength. She states in a passage that, ‘the black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power’ (Chapter 34). She is addressing how young black women are confronted with mature issues at a time in their lives where they have to adjust to the changes of becoming adolescents. The added obstacles of sexism, racism and black powerlessness cause them to have to grow up more quickly than other children.
In the novel, she goes through a period of time where she remains mute. This silence is a symbol of the expectations put upon black women. Society deems that, like children, they should be seen and not heard, as their opinions have always been belittled. Maya symbolises the caged bird mentioned in the novel’s title. She spent her childhood struggling to escape the bonds that society set on her to inhibit her from reaching her full potential. These bonds of oppression and racism were ineffective as she was able to find her voice and share her message of freedom and hope which can be seen through her many writings. The late Maya Angelou achieved many accomplishments in her life, each time proving to black women that they are more than their limitations. In her lifetime, she was an author, poet laureate, dancer, producer, editor, television host, university lecturer, social and political activist but most importantly, she was a survivor. Angelou’s rise teaches women that wherever you come from, whoever you are, you are important and have the right for your voice to be heard, respected and listened to.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the most widely recognised movement for change and acceptance for black people in this century. What started as a hashtag created by, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, has now become a worldwide symbol of hope and perseverance. Women such as Maya Angelou, who have shared their voice, are the reason why black women today are able to voice their opinions in a world where they are taught to be silent. It shows true strength for a black woman to continue to smile in the face of racism. It shows greater strength for black women to unite and uplift each other. It is important for black women to have avenues such as this internet campaign to be liberated from fear and from silence. Black women need to stand together and show that they are more than the stereotypes that are placed upon them. A simple Google search about black women will immediately show negative connotations that society has attributed to this group in society.
The birth of #BlackLivesMatter represents black women redefining who they are on the internet. It is a demonstration of rewriting their own definition and proving that just like every other cultural group, they have purpose and a voice. #BlackLivesMatter has pioneered the start of many other campaigns such as #SayHerName, #CareFreeBlackGirl and #InHerHonor. The rise of technology has resulted in a change in how black people protest and agitate for their rights. #BlackLivesMatter is more than just a hashtag as it has sparked an active movement which has brought together not only black women but people of all nationalities, genders and social classes to fight for change. Social media and the internet have become a necessity in alerting the world to the injustices that black people have suffered. The black community recognises that this change is vital to overcome the mistreatment that is regularly enacted by the white population, particularly white law enforcement. This call to action is to build power and uplift the stories which are all too often unheard and unseen. Black women, girls, and femmes experience violence and mass criminalisation from the police, intimate partners, healthcare providers, educators, and far too many systems of power. This movement works to expose these truths and let these unheard voices be heard.
To a contemporary audience, it’s recognisable that the struggles faced by black women are the result of an oppressive system that has been deep-rooted into the attitudes of society. Although women are speaking their opinions and expressing their feelings on these important issues, it’ll take a shift in the societal perception of black women, both cis and transgendered, to truly see change. Black women have demonstrated on many occasions that they can overcome adversity as individuals and even as groups. It is not until there is unanimity between the black community and the rest of the world, that these voices will change legislation and the attitudes and beliefs within daily life.