People should watch the movie adaptation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The film’s exploration of the ideological differences between the younger and older generations, which in these current times, is exemplified and applicable to the battle for the Democratic nomination. The scene that most epitomizes this conflict in this great film adaptation is the racist children scene. In this scene, Maya Angelou’s grandmother, Mama, played by the iconic actress, Esther Rolle, is confronted by a group of “poor white trash” children on her own property. The dirty white children, all girls who appear to be young teenagers verbally harass Mama, encircling her and hurling racist taunts at her. Then, one of the teenagers performs a handstand in front of Mama and exposes her vagina in Mama’s face. Throughout the entire exchange Mama quietly though clearly sings a gospel hymn while looking towards the heavens. Eventually, the miscreants, once they become bored, finally leave saying “bye Annie” referring to Mama by her first name, while Mama says goodbye to each of them calling the teens Miss Helen, Miss Ruth, etc.
Maya, who has witnessed these violations from the door, is mortified. When the teens leave, Maya confronts Mama about why she did not stand up for herself and allowed herself to be “degraded like that.” Maya is furious at Mama and defiant, understandably confused as to why Mama had not ordered those racist teens off the property because, as Maya angrily points out, Mama, “owns the land they live on.” Maya also pointedly snipes at Mama for allowing the teens to disrespect her by speaking to her in such an informal and familiar with her, a purported luxury that Maya could and would have never been able to. Mama, weary walks away from her grandchild to head back inside. Maya persists, and declares, “That would never happen to me, I would never allow myself to be degraded like that, I would tell them to go to Hell, I would spit in their faces…” when she is cut off by Mama’s slap across her face.
Mama then painfully explains that what she did, and what Maya saw was an effort for survival, which in many cases does not include pride. Mama explains to Maya that as Black people, we must endure those “crazy people” and their evilness and nastiness to stay alive.
“You think those crazy people won’t kill you! You think those lunatic cracker boys won’t try to catch you in the road and try to violate you! You think because you know poems and the times tables, some of those men won’t feel like men won’t feel like putting on white sheets and riding over here?! You do?! You’re wrong! Ain’t nothing to protect you and us except the Good Lord and a few fake words and few fake smiles that we put on our mouths! So you’d better start learning them words and putting that smile on your mouth!”
Maya defiantly says, “Never!” Mama responds, “Well, that’s your choice!”
This haunting but important scene encapsulates the differences between the generational divide between the radicalism of youth and the pragmatism of the older generation that we see in today’s modern political battles between Bernie Sanders supporters and those who have deceived to vote for Joe Biden. This is because like in this film, Mama does not support the vileness of the racist teens and what they stand for, she is just trying to survive, and keep her family safe. Currently, we have a destructive threat to humanity occupying the White House. While it was and remains disappointing that when voters went to the polls to select the Democratic nominee, they did not flock to support a progressive vision by nominating Julian Castro or Elizabeth Warren. The masses of Democratic voters did not select even more safer, but moderately progressive options such a Kamala Harris, Corey Booker or Tom Steyer. Instead they opted, en masse, to devolve our country for the supposed safety of the days of benign racism, where “special” and select people of color got ahead, while the masses continue to be left behind. Pragmatism selected Joe Biden, but just as in the film, this acceptance of mere survival may win this election, but we will not grow. Instead, we will be stagnant and the racists will still win because they will have succeeded in returning society back to a time when “those crazy people” roamed our country with undeserved impunity.
The film adaptation of Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is a must-watch as well as the original text by the same name. It is a poignant, timely exploration of generational differences, navigating racism and the importance of family to navigate these issues. Novels such as this are far more important, scholarly and engaging for high school students than the coming of age stories solely about white people, like To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of The Flies, that far too many schools such as Rancho Cucamonga High School currently force students to read.