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writing || Parenting is like a Fencing Match: Scene Analysis in “I Know why the Caged Bird Sings”

Yet another oldie today, y’all! This was an essay about a specific scene from “I Know why the Caged Bird Sings” in which Angelou uses fencing vocabulary when describing a conflict between her mother and brother. Enjoy!

The ultimate coming-of-age story that doesn’t shy away from even the more difficult topics, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is immensely honest and vulnerable.

Her experience being sent from mother and father to grandmother several times throughout her life is a situation not all readers can identify with. However, the truths she shares about family, love and self-identity through these experiences are universal.
By chapter 33, both Maya and her brother Bailey have become adolescents, and their trials and tribulations are representative of those which many other adolescents face. In fact, Maya’s account of Bailey’s fight with their Mother illustrates several truths all readers can relate to when it comes to conflict between a parent and child. In particular, her use of descriptive language characteristic of a fencing match provides a lens through which to understand her mother’s and brother’s conflict, and thus the plight of our own youthful turbulent relationships with our parents.

For a book written in the 20th century, the use of a fencing metaphor must surely be intentional. Not only is it a heavily outdated combat method, but even as a sport it is often under-marketed and relatively unrecognized. And yet, Maya begins her account of Bailey’s fight with their mother with a dramatic “En garde”. It is a creative suggestion that conflicts with parents are as old as fighting with swords. That is to say, VERY old. In reading about Bailey’s conflict, readers can picture mother and son engaging in a combat that is historical. Just as throughout time, our ancestors have fought with swords, so did the inevitable “constrictions of conscience and society, morality and ethos [dictate] a separation” of mother and son. Angelou expresses the battle as though it were a fencing match, and describes the conflict as one that has deeper causes that lie outside its actual subject. Only one of many universal truths Maya Angelou explores in her autobiography, she conveys the idea that conflict with one’s parents is a part of growing up.

As a sport and a nobleman’s combat art, fencing is premeditated. In the story, Bailey’s fight with their mother was an event that had many precedents. Angelou herself states, “Get out? Oh, hell, yes. Tomorrow? What’s wrong with today? Today? What about right now? But neither could move until all the measured steps had been negotiated.” Watching the escalating conflict, Angelou recognized that it was about to reach a climax. Like in fencing, all measured steps needed to be negotiated before engaging in battle. In fact, the steps to be decided reached even further back than the beginning of tensions between Bailey and their mother. In fact, Maya Angelou’s rough childhood, frequent moves from parent to parent, and lack of a stable parental figure created turbulence in her life. In a way, the result is inevitable.

Finally, as in any fight between mortals, the blood that is shed is evidence of the mortality of both opponents. For most of her childhood, Maya Angelou regards her mother as a goddess and an ideal to be looked up to, as a child would with a parent. However, once the fight begins between Bailey and their mother, both are hurt immensely. Angelou says: “In a bloodless coup he had thrust beneath her visor.” The visor is a protective gear worn in fencing that would suggest the two were engaged in a game or planned battle. However, when Bailey thrusts his metaphorical sword beneath her visor, he causes real harm that reveals their mother’s mortality. Although they both suffer afterwards, Angelou adds, “My tears were not for Bailey or Mother or even myself but for the helplessness of mortals who live on the sufferance of Life.” Her capitalization of “Life” gives it a character, and the fact that she categorizes both her mother and Bailey as helpless mortals suggests that perhaps Life is an abstracted communal entity we are all bound by – perfect parents and imperfect children alike. This part of the book questions what it means to be a parent, when after all, we are all vulnerable mortals affected by circumstances beyond our control. Maya Angelou and her brother have emerged into adulthood and recognized that their parents are no longer their protectors, but their equals.

Therefore, Maya Angelou compares Bailey and their mother’s verbal conflict to a physical fencing match through the use of metaphorical imagery. In doing so, Angelou is drawing the parallels between parent-child conflicts and a sport which is historical, premeditated and harmful to both mortals involved. Readers who take on the journey that is reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography will experience, through her lens, Bailey’s adolescent struggle with the authority of his mother in a way that reveals the truths that apply to nearly all parent-child battles.

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