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Chasing Rainbows: a black girl's search for inspiration and identity (Introduction)

“I’m so amazed, and it’s true, that each of us has a rainbow – some have four or five”. (Maya Angelou )

A young Black girl growing up in America has many issues to deal with and the authors I have selected deal with their response to these issues in magnificent detail. The search for self-identity and self-knowledge is not an easy task; therefore, everyone needs a rainbow to guide them through this experience. A rainbow is someone who will encourage children ‘ “to be more like themselves” ’ . Rainbows provide people with the inspiration that is needed in order to locate their inner selves.

Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, focuses on a black community through the perspective of eight year old Claudia MacTeer, however its main focus is Pecola Breedlove. Therefore, Morrison uses a unique style of narration, combining the innocent child witness, Claudia, with a retrospective, omnipotent narrator who offers judgement on the private and personal aspects of Pecola Breedlove’s life.

In terms of autobiography, although autobiographers are writing about what is ‘distinctive of themselves’ , they are aware of their relationship with a particular place and time. Thus, Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, does not only inform us about her quest for identity, but also tells us about life in Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s and 1940s. Traditionally, black autobiographers write to ‘define and redefine the self’ , that is they examine the many aspects that led to the formation of their identity. Since external factors are as important to this development, autobiographies focus on the social and economic conditions of a community, as well as the internal psychological development of the individual.

Unlike autobiography, which is a widely used form of Black literature, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple uses the ‘traditional Eurocentric’ form of literature, that is the epistolary. Although the epistolary style is associated with the communication of Western women, it was also in particular a typically White form of literature. However, Walker sees letters as the only form of expression available to Celie, due to her shame and oppression. Therefore, this literary genre, like the autobiography, allows the story to be told from an individual viewpoint, as well as including reference to the community that affects that individual.

A common link between Morrison, Angelou and Walker is their themes. The central characters’ perceptions and experiences of the central themes - such as religion, beauty, abandonment and loneliness, rape or sexual relations, racial discrimination, and relationships with the community and family - leads to their maturity, independence and self-knowledge. Pecola Breedlove’s inability to adapt to these experiences led her to retreat into a world of fantasy and insanity, which leaves her in a child-like state.

The three writers approach the form of their books in a similar way, which is illustrated in their tendency to use an epigraph, epigram or prologue that sets the tone for their novels. In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the vision of a white nuclear family runs throughout in the prologue and epigraph of the primer that becomes fragmented:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy.

This stands in sharp contrast with the Breedlove family and their house which falls far short of this dream image. Similarly, Walker’s The Color Purple opens with an epigraph about learning by imitation: ‘Show me how to do like you/ Show me how to do it./ - Stevie Wonder’ This emphasises that Celie, and the reader, must undergo a process of instruction. This epigraph is followed by the prologue that warns Celie ‘You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.’ This explains why Celie must write to God, and eventually rebels against the threat of her stepfather. Likewise, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings opens with an epigram: “What you looking at me for?/ I didn’t come to stay . . .” This extract from the Easter poem symbolises Maya’s childhood, where she is moved from place to place without getting too attached to any one place. The full poem represents the religious theme of ascension, that is her life revolves around birth, death and rebirth. Later in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya cries for ‘the helplessness of mortals who live on the sufferance of Life.’ She says that in order to ‘avoid this bitter end’ they would have to be ‘born again, and born with the knowledge of alternatives.’ This theme resurfaces at the end of Caged Bird when Maya gives birth to a new life and new hope - with each new life, there is a sense of improvement.

The themes that recur through each of the three books serve to define the inspiration and identity of their main characters. Although the experiences are often negative, the characters come to find their self-knowledge and self-identity through their encounters. Consequently, the main characters both accept themselves and gain their independence, or their inability to cope with their experiences, as in the case of Pecola Breedlove, spiral into insanity and self-delusion. What is vitally important to each of the characters is their rainbows or inspirations that enable them to both love and accept themselves and others.


  1. Maya Angelou in Lori Rohlk, “Maya Angelou’s Rainbows”, [28 February 1999].
  2. Ibid.
  3. Dolly McPherson, Order Out of Chaos (London: Virago, 1994), p.2.
  4. Ibid., p.4.
  5. Mae G. Henderson, “The Color Purple: Revisions and redefinitions”, in Harold Bloom, Alice Walker (New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1989), p.67.
  6. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London: Picador, 1990), p.1.
  7. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (London: Women’s Press, 1997).
  8. ibid. , p.3
  9. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (London: Virago, 1997), p.3.
  10. ibid., p.254