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Maya Angelou and Mary Crow Dog: The Quest for Self-Determination
Written by: Mary Arnold
During their growing up years, children struggle to find their personal place in society. It is difficult for children to find their place when they are given numerous advantages, but when a child is oppressed by their parents or grandparents, males in their life, and the dominant culture, the road to achieving self-identity is fraught with enormous obstacles to overcome. Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Mary Crow Dog's Lakota Woman depict the two women's "triumph over formidable social obstacles and [their] struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance" (Draper 1).
Both women grew up in segregated societies: Mary Crow Dog on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and Maya Angelou in the black community of Stamps, Arkansas. As is common with minority children, they spent most of their childhood living with their grandparents. Both women also experienced oppression by their parents and grandparents, who were the first contact with other people that children have. Even though Mary's mother and grandmother spoke the Lakota language, they refused to teach it to Mary. They told her that "speaking Indian would only hold you back, turn you the wrong way" (Crow Dog 22). They wanted Mary to have a "white man's education" (Crow Dog 22).
In contrast, Maya was denied a white man's education, not only by the dominant culture but also by her grandmother. Maya attended the Lafayette County Training School, which was the school for blacks. In addition, Maya's grandmother forbade her from reading books by white authors. This restriction is exemplified in the following passage:
Bailey and I decided to memorize a scene from "The Merchant of Venice", but we realized that Momma would question us about the author and that we'd have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn't matter to her whether he was dead or not (Angelou 14).
Knowing that their grandmother wouldn't approve of their reading Shakespeare, Bailey and Maya decide to memorize "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson instead.
Mary's grandmother believed that "going to church" and "dressing and behaving like a wasièun (white man)" was the "key which would magically unlock the door leading to the good life, the white life" (Crow Dog 23). In contrast, Maya's grandmother instructed her grandchildren to "use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones" (Angelou 47). Her safe path was one in which blacks had as limited contact with white people as possible since she did not believe that "whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one's life" (Angelou 47).
In addition to parental dominance, both women suffered male dominance when they were forcibly raped at a young age. Mary Crow Dog was fifteen when a man of unspecified color raped her, and Maya Angelou was eight when her mother's boyfriend assaulted her. Besides sexual domination, these women also experienced mental and physical domination.
Mary reports that on the reservation, "the men pay great lip service to the status of women in the tribe" (Crow Dog 65). When actually, "among the Plains tribes, some men think that all a woman is good for is to crawl into the sack with them and mind the children" (Crow Dog 5). Also Mary asserts that because of what white society has done to their men, some "warriors come home drunk and beat up their old ladies in order to work off their frustration" (Crow Dog 5).
Maya's knowledge of male/female relationships comes largely from her father and his live-in girlfriend. Even though Maya does not like Delores, she has sympathy for Delores over the way her father treats his girlfriend. Maya considered her father "mean and cruel" because he was "unable to proffer a bit of kindness to the woman who had waited patiently, busying herself with housewifely duties" while Maya and her father had gone to Mexico (Angelou 244).
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1993.
Crow Dog, Mary. Lakota Woman. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Draper, James P., ed., et al. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 77. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993.
Mahtowin, "Mary Crow Dog: Real Life Hero." New Directions for Women, Vol. 21, No.2, March-April, 1992, p. 28.
Narins, Brigham, and Deborah A. Stanley, eds., et al. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 93. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1996.
O'Neale, Sondra. "Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 25-37.