When life’s circumstances brought author Maya Angelou feelings of worthlessness and failure, she responded with these dignified words: “Self-pity in its early stage is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable.” In contrast to Angelou’s honest self-reflection, mass shooters in the United States consistently answer dismal times with grandiose violence, seasoned with a sense of thwarted male entitlement.
Angelou grew up without entitlement during the 1930s in Stamps, Arkansas. The literary classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) explores her poignant experiences in this segregated Southern town. Angelou’s grandmother, “Momma” Annie Henderson, owned and operated a general store for blacks and had “more money than all the po’white trash” yet was still disrespected by white children and adults, especially the males. Dr. Lincoln, a white male dentist to whom Momma had loaned money, refused to treat young Maya, noting, “I’d rather stick my hand into a dog’s mouth than a nigger’s.”
Angelou indulged in fantasy to deal psychologically with the intense racism and sexism of this homegrown rejection. She conjured a forceful response by Momma, who grew to “ten feet tall with eight-foot arms” and instructed Dr. Lincoln to leave Stamps by sundown. She imagined the doctor settled into a new practice where his only patients were “dogs with mange, cats with cholera and cows with the epizootic.”
Fantasy is a deep psychological response to an unfulfilling social dynamic. Like many women, Angelou used fantasy to process intense alienation. White males in Stamps, even the children, learned unjust entitlements of both race and gender, which a child such as Angelou was forced to endure. In contrast, the mass shooter is often bolstered by an enhanced sense of entitlement—the psychological inverse of Angelou’s oppression. Young male shooters too frequently strike out against “injustice” with violent fantasy, when they don’t get what they believe they deserve.
The demographic data regarding mass shooters is compelling. Charles Cooke of the National Review argues that the racial demographic of mass shooters over the past twenty years is very similar to the overall demographic of the United States. The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for example, was triggered by an Asian male. In contrast, the gender demographic is striking. According to NPR, between 2001 and 2010, over 92 percent of mass shootings were committed by males. Why don’t more young women shoot up schools? What stops teenage females from snapping, when they likely face even more intense, social media-fed, around-the-clock bullying than males face? Why do more women tend to turn violence inward rather than outward? The difference is a socially ingrained sense of male entitlement.
An early episode in Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates the force of male social privilege beyond the scope of race. Mr. Freeman, a boyfriend of Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, rapes young Maya multiple times when they are home alone. Angelou’s reaction is telling: She does not want to report it and feels a strange sense of love and loyalty to Mr. Freeman, to the code of men, along with the horrors of violation. Women do not address injustice in Angelou’s book; they swallow it, whereas Maya’s uncles beat Freeman to death when they discover the horror. “Being aware of displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” she writes. Angelou is forced to adopt a degraded stance in relation to herself, her community and the world, yet she responds with a life dedicated to humble dignity rather than violence.
Mass shooters often respond indignantly to a hybrid feeling of entitlement and worthlessness. This month, for example, a male Chattanooga killer in his 20s countered bankruptcy, a DUI charge, drug use, unmet family expectations and self-diagnosed mental illness with a lone-wolf, pseudo-jihad-inspired mass shooting. Dylann Roof, another example, spewed racism while he killed six women and three men in a Charleston church. Elliot Rodger, a twenty-two-year-old who killed six in Santa Barbara, noted in his “My Twisted World” manifesto that “I don't know why you girls haven't been attracted to me, but I will punish you, for it is an injustice." Ironically, Rodger’s May 2014 rampage took place in the same month that Maya Angelou quietly passed away.
When the mattress becomes hard and uncomfortable, young people, especially young males, need to adjust expectations and entitlements that surround their self-pity. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one tool to explore unhealthy perspectives, to counterbalance and to enlighten. Maya Angelou’s grounded voice articulates a rich understanding of entitlement and its destructive displacement.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over ten years at the secondary and post-secondary levels; he has published three books.