Despite the authors being born over a decade apart and raised within vastly different cultural traditions, the similarities between Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior are numerous and striking. While Hong Kingston tells us via her subtitle—Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts—that we’ll meet some mysterious characters within her pages, it doesn’t take a reader long to discover that Angelou’s childhood is also defined by various enigmas. In fact, both memoirs are littered with ghosts—ghosts of heroes, both fictional and real, ghosts of ancestors whose spirits remain in the homes and hearts of subsequent generations, and ghost-like peers whom Angelou and Hong Kingston live among but know little about.
In The Woman Warrior, the first ghost Hong Kingston introduces us to is that of an aunt in China who is never named. Hong Kingston’s mother tells her of this aunt—her father’s sister—who became pregnant at a time when her husband had been away too long to have fathered the child. This brings shame to the village and the family, and the aunt consequently kills herself and her infant. Hong Kingston is never told the circumstances of the aunt’s pregnancy, so she creates multiple possible scenarios that could have resulted in this illegitimate birth. Though she ultimately assumes the aunt had given in to or directly obeyed the desires of a man she’d become acquainted with either in the fields, on the mountain, or in the marketplace, she is never really sure.
Alternatively, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou boldly offers herself to a young man to satisfy her own curiosity, but she is equally unprepared for and uneducated about the possible consequences. Neither of the cultures these women grow up in welcome transparency, especially not in sexual matters. Hong Kingston explains, “The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable” (Hong Kingston 5). It is not lost on the reader that this sentiment is itself a ghost that still lingers over the genre of memoir and its practitioners who would seek the truth no matter how dark or disturbing.
Parental secrecy and deceit are themes throughout both of these books, so that the living parents take on a ghostly quality, too. In the White Tigers chapter of The Woman Warrior, Hong Kingston puts herself in the place of Fa Mu Lan, a mythical female warrior of Chinese legend, and the noble fictional couple who train Mu Lan become preferable surrogates for Hong Kingston’s true parents who, in reality, offer little praise or encouragement throughout her childhood (Hong Kingston 19-53). Angelou likewise reflects on her relationship with the grandmother who raised her, “Knowing Momma, I knew that I never knew Momma. Her African-bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken” (Angelou 191).
Males are ghosts in both memoirs as well, and the women are continuously fighting against a patriarchal heritage. Hong Kingston refers to sexism repeatedly in her book, noting how the women in her culture are forced into arranged marriages and often treated as servants to their in-laws, but men are encouraged to have multiple wives. “There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls,” her parents and the other emigrants from her village often say (Hong Kingston 46), but her mother, Brave Orchid, is educated in medicine and proud of it. In the At the Western Palace chapter, Brave Orchid vehemently encourages, forces really, her own sister to confront the husband who’d left her thirty years before. She wants her sister to shame the husband into taking her back, and the hatred Brave Orchid feels for the husband, as well as his new wife, is vitriolic. Her disappointment in her sister’s hesitancy to open old wounds is also palpable.
Maya Angelou’s “Momma” take a comparable opportunistic stand when little Maya needs dental care and the only dentist in town refuses to treat her because she’s Black. “I wouldn’t press on you like this for myself,” she explains, “but I can’t take No. Not for my grandbaby. When you come to borrow my money you didn’t have to beg. You asked me, and I lent it. Now, it wasn’t my policy. I ain’t no moneylender, but you stood to lose this building and I tried to help you out” (Angelou 186).
One women is fighting cultural norms and one is fighting racism, but both attempts at shaming these men into doing the right thing fail. The insolence feels victorious and yet these women are still ultimately controlled by the men, and they know it. In both memoirs, the mother figures exist in this continuous state of conflict between pride in their abilities and respect from their own people versus gender and race norms that force limitations on them. Acceptance and defiance are constantly at battle with one another.
Both of these encounters also show the ghosts of the secondary society Hong Kingston and Angelou are raised in. Hong Kingston’s family and fellow immigrants refer to the white people of America as “ghosts,” so foreign, and often hostile, they seem. As Brave Orchid shows her sister around the neighborhood, she references Skid Row, “‘On days when you are not feeling safe, walk around it. But you can walk through it unharmed on your strong days.’ On weak days you notice bodies on the sidewalk, and you are visible to Panhandler Ghosts and Mugger Ghosts” (Hong Kingston 139). Contributing to this is a fear of the morally permissive American society, as well as bigotry, and many of the Chinese immigrant children do not talk at school, reluctant to integrate. Their parents, who often don’t speak any English at all, never attend any school events and therefore are rarely exposed to any white people outside of the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods they settle into—the only places they’re able to find affordable housing and work.
Angelou addresses this same separation, though the lines are more severe in the 1930s segregated South. “In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like…. I remember never believing that whites were really real…. Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn’t walk on the balls of their feet the way people did—they walked on their heels like horses” (Angelou 25-26). Angelou’s grandmother’s store was relatively prosperous and she had lent money and presumably land to white people during the Depression. “Some families of powhitetrash lived on Momma’s farm land behind the school. Sometimes a gaggle of them came to the Store…. They took liberties in my Store that I would never dare. Since Momma told us that the less you say to whitefolks (even powhitetrash) the better, Bailey and I would stand, solemn, quiet, in the displaced air. But if one of the playful apparitions got close to us, I pinched it. Partly out of angry frustration and partly because I didn’t believe in its flesh reality” (Angelou 27).
There is a fear of this parallel white people’s society, but also a curiosity and sometimes even an admiration. Towards the end of The Woman Warrior, Hong Kingston rails against what she believes to be her mother’s attempts at finding her a husband, screaming, “I may be ugly and clumsy, but one thing I’m not, I’m not retarded. There’s nothing wrong with my brain. Do you know what the Teacher Ghosts say about me? They tell me I’m smart, and I can win scholarships…and they say I could be a scientist or a mathematician if I want. I can make a living and take care of myself. So you don’t have to find me a keeper who’s too dumb to know a bad bargain…” (Hong Kingston 201). In this passage, the reader comes to recognize that the dismissal and disappointment Brave Orchid shows for her daughter may not only stem from deeply held cultural ideas of gender roles but also from a subdued jealousy for the opportunities her Chinese American girls will have in their adopted country.
It isn’t until her eighth grade graduation that Angelou fully understands the disadvantage she faces as both a female and a person of color in 1940s America. She enters the building where the ceremony is to be held with great anticipation, but the mood quickly changes as the principal impatiently urges people to find their seats. An unexpected speaker—a white politician from Texarkana—has come to address the crowd:
“He told us of the wonderful changes we children in Stamps had in store. The Central School (naturally, the white school was Central) had already been granted improvements that would be in use in the fall. A well-known artist was coming from Little Rock to teach art to them. They were going to have the newest microscopes and chemistry equipment for their laboratory…. He went on to say how he had bragged that ‘one of the best basketball players at Fisk sank his first ball right here at Lafayette County Training School.’
“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 Owens and Joe Louises.
“Graduation, the hush-hush magic time of frills and gifts and congratulations and diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called. The accomplishment was nothing. The meticulous maps, drawn in three colors of ink, learning and spelling decasyllabic words, memorizing the whole of The Rape of Lucrece—it was for nothing….
“We were maids and farmers, handymen and washer-women, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous….
“I was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense” (Angelou 176).
Both of these memoirs are remarkable in that they are stories of children urged to stay silent outside of their familial, cultural, or racial boundaries, and who both even practice a voluntary muteness for a time in response to the message that their words would, or already did in Angelou’s case, harm others. But these girls grew into women who witnessed the world change before their eyes. The ghosts preserved by generations before them, and held onto through childhoods split within two competing and conflicting cultures, began to evaporate. A first-generation Chinese American, whose scholarly father and medically trained mother could only find work in a laundry, went on to become an anti-war activist, celebrated writer, and college professor. An African American girl, raised in a segregated South where racial violence was commonplace, grew to become a civil rights activist, a celebrated poet fluent in multiple languages, and the recipient of dozens of honorary degrees and a professorship, despite never having gotten a college education herself.
However, over a half century after the experiences documented in these two moving memoirs take place, we find ourselves in a political climate that would continue to quell voices of women and people of color and legitimize ethnic bigotry, both legally and culturally. Those who speak out are labeled with derogatory names and told to be quiet or leave. Maxine Hong Kingston and Maya Angelou didn’t stay silent and they didn’t concede. Their words still linger in the air all around us, like phantoms, reminding the caged bird to keep singing, imploring the woman warrior to stand strong.
Amy Mackin is a writer from the Boston area. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain Child, Ploughshares Blog, Witness, and elsewhere.