As the quote from The New York Times points out on the back cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou's novel is "Simultaneously touching and comic." Through language, choice of detail, and the story itself, Angelou introduces humor and comic relief to a narrative filled with sadness, loneliness, and fear. The purpose of the humor goes well beyond entertainment purposes, as it is used by Maya as a type of defense mechanism. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, humor is used to mask deep hurt in an attempt to lesson emotional distress.
[...] Maya's less-than-perfect father also is a potential point of distress, providing another example of her use of humor as a mask for emotional anguish. When Daddy Bailey arrives in Stamps without warning, the shock and confusion is ripe with comedy. Maya points out that shoulders were so wide I thought he'd have trouble getting in the door” (54). She uses a fun image in her explanation of his arrival, jesting, seven-year-old world humpty-dumptied, never to be put back together again” (54). [...]
[...] She describes a comical scene where she approaches her mother about her vagina, and learns that a vulva is normal and is in no way a sign of lesbianism. When Maya decides she wants to “venture into she does so in an amusing manner. In passing a neighborhood young man on the street, she the plan in action. ‘Hey.' I plunged, ‘Would you like to have a sexual intercourse with me?'” (282). This hasty approach is especially amusing considering the serious consequences of this action. As with other aspects of her life, Maya uses humor to mask the [...]
[...] Maya points out the humor whites found in the incident: whites tickled their funny bones with the incident for a long time” (48). This focus on the humor derived from the episode detracts from the sad situation it represents. The idea that an African American woman should not be addressed as is a clear indication of an unfortunate state of affairs for African Americans. Maya's concentration on the humor found in the incident is an example of her use of humor as a mask to cover up sources of anguish. [...]
[...] Humor is again used as a cover when Maya describes the distressful situation of working for Mrs. Cullinan, a white woman. Part of this distress comes from the realization that this white woman enjoyed material luxury far beyond what Maya had ever known. Rather than focusing on what Maya does not have, however, Maya playfully describes what Mrs. Cullinan does have: It took me a week to learn the difference between a salad plate, a bread plate and a dessert plate . [...]
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