I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
This dress is going to be awesome. It's made of silk, has ruffles on the hem, and tucks in at the waist. What could be cuter?
Maya wears the Easter Sunday dress during the prologue. For weeks before Easter, she went around dreaming about how beautiful the dress would be and how its magical powers would change her life. She would turn from an ugly black girl to a pretty white girl, complete with curly blond hair. Finally, she would prove to everyone that she was different.
But that Sunday morning, things don't go quite as expected:
Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway […] The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs. (Prologue.8)
Instead of waking up from her "black ugly dream," Maya realizes that it's a reality.
What can we take from the image of the dress? Sure, it confirms—from the very beginning—that Maya's ideal of beauty is white, not black. But it also symbolizes Maya's constant frustration that her ideal is unattainable—literally. She can fight racism, but she can't fight race. Luckily, over the course of the novel, Maya comes to accept herself and realize that the color of her skin should be a source of pride.