By far the most severe oppression that the women faced comes from the dominant culture. This oppression is shown in numerous ways, such as degradation, exploitation, and murder. As a result, the women have an understandable fear and hatred of white people. Maya describes an errand into the white section of town like this: “We were explorers walking without weapons into man-eating animals’ territory” (Angelou 25). Likewise, because of Mary’s beatings by Catholic nuns at the Indian Boarding School, she “hated and mistrusted every white person on sight, because [she] met only one kind” (Crow Dog 34).
One example of whites’ degradation of minority peoples is the changing of their names. Native American peoples were forced to adopt Christian first names. Mary writes that her husband’s family name should have been Crow Coyote, but due to a white interpreter’s misunderstanding, they ended up with the name Crow Dog (Crow Dog 10). Maya also had her name changed by her white employer. Her given name is Marguerite, but the white woman called her Margaret. Then a friend of the white woman told her the name Margaret was too long and she would “call her Mary if I was you” (Angelou 107). Maya said that “every person she knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name'” and that “it was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots, and spooks” (Angelou 109).
Another element of oppression by whites is how minority peoples are exploited for their labor and cheated out of what is owed to them. Native and African Americans were relegated to the lowest and worst paying jobs by whites. Mary claimed that all the whites living near the reservation “made their living in some way by exploiting [the Indians], by using Indians as cheap labor, by running their cattle on reservation land for a mere pittance, by using [Indians] as colorful props to attract the Eastern tourists” (Crow Dog 81). Mary discovered that her people were being cheated by the reservation trading post when she was in New York. According to Mary, “everything was so much cheaper than on the reservation where the trading posts have no competition and charge what they please” (Crow Dog 112).
African Americans suffer from this exploitation also. Since they were segregated, African Americans were only allowed to attend certain schools and colleges. These colleges trained “Negro youth to be carpenters, farmers, handymen, masons, maids, cooks, and baby nurses” (Angelou 170). They were not given the opportunity to become “Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gaugins” (Angelou 179). As with the Indians, whites cheated the black cotton pickers out of their earned wages. Maya reported that “no matter how much they had picked, it wasn’t enough” to pay the “staggering bill that waited on them at the white commissary downtown” (Angelou 8).
The most severe oppression suffered by minorities is the physical violence and unjustified murder committed by white people. Maya describes a gruesome scene in which she and her brother learn about the murder of a black man:
And once, we found out about a man who had been killed by whitefolks and thrown into the pond. Bailey said the man’s things had been cut off and put in his pocket and he had been shot in the head, all because the whitefolks said he did ‘it’ to a white woman (Angelou 37).
Mary also recounts numerous times Indians were murdered by white men. The following account is particularly inhuman:
Not long before that a Sioux, Raymond Yellow Thunder, a humble, hard-working man, had been stripped naked and forced at gunpoint to dance in an American Legion Hall at Gordon, Nebraska. Later he was beaten to death — just for the fun of it (Crow Dog 83).
The previous passages narrate only a few of the many indignities and humiliations these women (and other people in their ethnic group) saw and suffered due to the oppression by the white dominant culture. To survive in the harsh world they are forced into, African Americans and Native Americans developed numerous strategies to keep on living. For example, both minority groups have a “dream,” they both have a communal spirit, neither believes crime against the whites is wrong, and both adhere to the concept of double consciousness.
The African American dream consists of achieving full rights and equality with the dominant culture. This dream is exemplified in Maya’s narrative when she imagines her grandmother standing up for her rights against a dentist and demanding to be treated with the respect that is due her as a human being:
Stand up when you see a lady, you contemptuous scoundrel…You knave, do you think you acted like a gentleman, speaking to me like that in front of my granddaughter?…I order you, now and herewith…Leave Stamps by sundown (Angelou 190).
This passage reflects the African American dream of equality with whites; since whites have long exerted power over blacks, the roles are reversed and the blacks have the power now. The passage also shows that African Americans have the right to be spoken with politeness and respect and not as if they were dogs.
In contrast, the Native American dream does not seek equality with whites. Rather the Native Americans want their homeland back the way it was: no white people and plenty of buffalo.
And so they began to dance and sing, to bring back the buffalo, to bring back the old world of the Indians which the wasièun [white man] had destoyed, the world they had loved so much and for whose return they were praying (Crow Dog 149).
Native Americans and African Americans developed these dreams to give themselves hope that, eventually, their condition will be better.
In a time when the whites were trying to obliterate Native and African Americans, they developed a sense of us against them. These minority groups do everything in their power to help their people survive. In regards to visitors, Mary’s grandmother told her, “Even if there’s not much [food] left, they gonna eat. And whatever is left after they leave, even if it’s only a small dried-up piece of fry bread, that’s what we eat” (Crow Dog 19).
Maya describes the communal spirit among blacks in the following way: “Whatever was given by Black people to other Blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver” (Angelou 49). Both these passages illustrate how the groups do without something they need in order to help others survive.
In order to combat economic oppression by the dominant culture, many minorities turn to crime as a means of survival. These crimes against the whites are not viewed as wrong by Maya or Mary. When Maya meets two African American con men who perpetuate scams upon white businessmen, she said “it wasn’t possible for me to regard them as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements” (Angelou 224). Similarly, Mary describes shoplifting as “just getting a little of our own back, like counting coup in the old days by raiding the enemy’s camp for horses” (Crow Dog 61).
The concept of double consciousness is very important among African Americans and Native Americans. This concept was probably developed to achieve self-esteem in minorities. In other words, minorities identify with someone of their race who is successful in order to feel better about themselves and experience success vicariously.
This concept of double consciousness is seen when Maya describes a boxing match between the heavyweight champion Joe Louis and the contender Carnera. She writes that the fight “might be the end of the world” and that “if Joe lost [African Americans] were back in slavery and beyond help” (Angelou 135). After Louis wins the fight, she says “Joe Louis had proved to the world that we were the strongest people in the world” (Angelou 136). This illustrates the idea of people living vicariously through other members of their race.
Another facet of double consciousness is seen in Mary’s narrative. In this instance Mary feels she represents all the Lakota women and therefore cannot fail in her endeavors. During an extremely hot sweat ceremony, in which more rocks were used than Mary was used to, she “felt she could not cry out to have the flap opened” because she “represented the Sioux women on this occasion” (Crow Dog 205). Double consciousness works both ways: other people in your race represent you, and you represent your race. Consequently, Mary’s “story is not just hers, but the story of a whole generation and era” (Mahtowin 28).
Maya’s narrative is also regarded as being representative of her people. One critic of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings wrote:
The process of her autobiography is not a singular statement of individual egotism but an exultant explorative revelation that she is because her life is an inextricable part of the misunderstood reality of who Black people and Black women truly are (O’Neale 26).
Both of these women’s autobiographies explore the realities of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ lives, and seek to dispel the myths surrounding them that have been spread by the dominant culture.
Maya Angelou and Mary Crow Dog gained their self-determination in different ways. Maya fought to be accepted by white society and Mary fought to be left alone by white society. Mary, speaking of the Indian civil rights movement and the African American civil rights movement, made this distinction: “They want in. We Indians want out! That is the main difference” (Crow Dog 77).
Maya integrated herself into white society step by step, peacefully. Later in her life she participated in peaceful demonstrations, but she began this process when she was fifteen in San Francisco. She wanted to get a job on the streetcars, even though “they don’t accept colored people on the streetcars” (Angelou 265). Maya was determined, though, and she haunted the railway officials until the “blissful day when [she] was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars” (Angelou 269).
In contrast, Mary’s struggle was forceful. At a very young age, she responded to insults and discrimination by fighting back. For example, at the Indian Boarding School one of the nuns singled out Mary as a bad example for being “too free with her body” for holding hands with a boy (Crow Dog 38). Mary attacked back with the following passage:
You people are a lot worse than us Indians…Maybe twelve, thirteen years ago you had a water stoppage here in St. Francis…When the water backed up they had to go through all the water lines and clean them out…And in those huge pipes they found the bodies of newborn babies…And they were white babies…They weren’t Indian babies…At least when our girls have babies, they don’t do away with them that way (Crow Dog 39).
Later in life, Mary also becomes involved with the Indian civil rights movement and participates in many demonstrations. Some of the demonstrations are violent confrontations, such as Wounded Knee. Mary finds her identity through her involvement with the American Indian Movement and when she marries a Lakota medicine man, who teaches her the traditional ways of the Lakotas.
To conclude, both of these minority women struggle against oppressive restrictions throughout their formative years. But the dominant culture fails to break them and make them submit to their will. Instead Maya and Mary break down the barriers blocking their chosen path and achieve the power to lead their lives as they see fit.
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.