I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big N**** girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil. (Prologue.9)
Even as a little girl, Maya already has it in her head that white girls are sugar, spice, and everything nice. Little black girls? Not so much. Racism has already made its way into Maya's world—and it's not leaving any time soon.
Boys? No, rather men who were covered with graves' dust and age without beauty or learning. The ugliness and rottenness of old abominations. (3.10)
Mr. Stewart wins understatement of the year by calling the Ku Klux Klan members "boys." We bet he also calls monster trucks "tricycles." To learn more about the KKK and its revival in the 20th century, check out what our beloved History Channel has to say.
I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles. (5.22)
Maya is still young when the white girls come to the Store and taunt Momma, but she already knows what it means to be black in Stamps. And for that matter, what it means to be white in Stamps. When in Caged Bird does Maya realize that there's a way out of these confined roles?
This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. (19.17)
Talk about blowing things out of proportion. If one black boxer loses one fight, it's the end of the world? Yikes. But that's what it feels like for Maya and her community—that's how desperate things are for black people in the South.
The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren't even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises. (23.40)
Mr. Donleavy sees the world in black and white (pun intended). In his mind, black kids are destined for sports stardom. Guess what, Mr. D? Not every tall black kid is going to be the next Michael Jordan. We need more George Washington Carvers and Jean Michel Basquaits (and of course, Maya Angelous) in the world, but these future heroes need help and support to grow, just like Edison and Gauguin did.
It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness. (24.9)
And you thought going to the dentist was a pain in the tooth on its own? Throw racism into the mix and things get much more complicated. Even something as basic as sufficient medical care is impossible to ensure in the racist South.
"Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?"
Uncle Willie muttered, "They don't really hate us. They don't know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared." (25.11-12)
Is Uncle Willie right? Is racism about fear? Or is it about hate? Or is it just about ignorance?
The Japanese were not whitefolks. Their eyes, language and customs belied the white skin and proved to their dark successors that since they didn't have to be feared, neither did they have to be considered. All this was decided unconsciously. (27.6)
It's easy to forget in Caged Bird, but black and white are not the only races that exist. We have a whole Crayola diversity pack of colors in the world. In this case, the Japanese get totally pushed aside. Are the black people in San Francisco doing to the Japanese exactly what the white people have done to them?
The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast. (29.22)
Everyone wants a piece of the pie. When they aren't allowed to get it through legal means, some people figure out different ways of getting some sweet goodness. And Maya comes to respect and admire the black men she sees committing these petty crimes. What do you think? Is this a case of you've gotta do what you've gotta do? Or is a crime a crime?
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.
The fact that the adult American N**** female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. (34.46)
Which is the tougher obstacle for Maya: racism or sexism? How would her life have been different if she'd been a black man? Or a white woman?