Before writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the age of forty, Angelou had a long and varied career, holding jobs such as composer, singer, actor, civil rights worker, journalist, and educator. In the late 1950s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met a number of important African-American authors, including her friend and mentor James Baldwin. After hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak for the first time in 1960, she was inspired to join the Civil Rights movement. She organized several benefits for him, and he named her Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked for several years in Ghana, West Africa, as a journalist, actress, and educator. She was invited back to the US by Malcolm X to work for him shortly before his assassination in 1965. In 1968, King asked her to organize a march, but he too was assassinated on April 4, which also happened to be her birthday. For many years, Angelou responded to King's murder by not celebrating her birthday, choosing to meet with, call, or send flowers to his widow, Coretta Scott King.
Angelou was deeply depressed in the months following King's assassination, so to help lift her spirits, Baldwin brought her to a dinner party at the home of cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife Judy in late 1968. The guests began telling stories of their childhoods and Angelou's stories impressed Judy Feiffer. The next day she called Robert Loomis at Random House, who became Angelou's editor throughout her long writing career until he retired in 2011, and "told him that he ought to get this woman to write a book". At first, Angelou refused, since she thought of herself as a poet and playwright. According to Angelou, Baldwin had a "covert hand" in getting her to write the book, and advised Loomis to use "a little reverse psychology", and reported that Loomis tricked her into it by daring her: "It's just as well", he said, "because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible". Angelou was unable to resist a challenge, and she began writing Caged Bird. After "closeting herself" in London, it took her two years to write it. She shared the manuscript with her friend, writer Jessica Mitford, before submitting it for publication.
Angelou subsequently wrote six additional autobiographies, covering a variety of her young adult experiences. They are distinct in style and narration, but unified in their themes and stretch from Arkansas to Africa, and back to the US, from the beginnings of World War II to King's assassination. Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted as a series of short stories, yet do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013, at the age of 85). Critics have often judged Angelou's later autobiographies "in light of the first", and Caged Bird generally receives the highest praise.
Beginning with Caged Bird, Angelou used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She would get up at five in the morning and checked into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She wrote on yellow legal pads while lying on the bed, with a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and left by the early afternoon. She averaged 10–12 pages of material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. Lupton stated that this ritual indicated "a firmness of purpose and an inflexible use of time". Angelou went through this process to give herself time to turn the events of her life into art, and to "enchant" herself; as she said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, to "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang". She placed herself back in the time she is writing about, even during traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, to "tell the human truth" about her life. Critic Opal Moore says about Caged Bird: "... Though easily read, [it] is no 'easy read'". Angelou stated that she played cards to reach that place of enchantment, to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I'm in it—ha! It's so delicious!" She does not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in "telling the truth".
When selecting a title, Angelou turned to Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet whose works she had admired for years. Jazz vocalist and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln suggested the title. According to Lyman B. Hagen, the title pulls Angelou's readers into the book while reminding them that it is possible to both lose control of one's life and to have their freedom taken from them. Angelou has credited Dunbar, along with Shakespeare, with forming her "writing ambition". The title of the book comes from the third stanza of Dunbar's poem "Sympathy":[note 1]
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, When he beats his bars and would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings – I know why the caged bird sings.