I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


When Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature, according to critic Pierre A. Walker, was thematic unity. One of Angelou's goals was to create a book that satisfied this criterion. The structure of the text, which resembles a series of short stories, is not chronological but rather thematic. Walker believes that Angelou succeeded in emphasizing identity, racism, rape, and literacy, despite the narrative's episodic quality.[2] As Hagen states, she structures the book into three parts: arrival, sojourn, and departure, which occur both geographically and psychologically.[41]


The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of male prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings[42]

In the course of Caged Bird, Maya, who has been described as "a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America",[1] goes from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual who responds to racism with dignity and a strong sense of her own identity. Feminist scholar Maria Lauret states that the "formation of female cultural identity" is woven into the book's narrative, setting Maya up as "a role model for Black women".[43] African-American literature scholar Dolly McPherson states that Angelou, in her demonstration of the passage from childhood to young adulthood, creatively uses "the Christian myth" and presents the themes of death, regeneration, and rebirth.[44] Scholar Liliane Arensberg calls this presentation Angelou's "identity theme" and a major motif in Angelou's narrative. Maya's unsettled life in Caged Bird suggests her sense of self "as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications".[45]

As Lauret indicates, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used the autobiography to reimagine ways of writing about women's lives and identities in a male-dominated society. Up until this time, Black women were not depicted realistically in African American fiction and autobiography, so Angelou was one of the first Black autobiographers to present, as Cudjoe put it, "a powerful and authentic signification of [African American] womanhood in her quest for understanding and love rather than for bitterness and despair".[46] Lauret sees a connection between Angelou's autobiographies, which Lauret calls "fictions of subjectivity" and "feminist first-person narratives", and fictional first-person narratives (such as The Women's Room by Marilyn French and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing) written during the same period. Both genres employ the narrator as protagonist and "rely upon the illusion of presence in their mode of signification".[47]

As a displaced girl, Maya's pain is worsened by an awareness of her displacement. She is "the forgotten child", and must come to terms with "the unimaginable reality" of being unloved and unwanted;[44] she lives in a hostile world that defines beauty in terms of whiteness and that rejects her simply because she is a Black girl. Maya internalizes the rejection she has experienced – her belief in her own ugliness was "absolute".[48] McPherson believes that the concept of family, or what Lupton called "kinship concerns",[49] in Angelou's books must be understood in the light of the children's displacement at the beginning of Caged Bird.[50] Being sent away from their parents was a psychological rejection, and resulted in a quest for love, acceptance, and self-worth for both Maya and Bailey.[51]

Lauret agrees with other scholars that Angelou uses her many roles, incarnations, and identities throughout her books to illustrate how oppression and personal history are interrelated. For example, in Caged Bird, Angelou demonstrates the "racist habit"[43] of renaming African Americans, as shown when her white employer insists on calling her "Mary". Angelou describes the employer's renaming as the "hellish horror of being 'called out of [one's] name'".[52] Scholar Debra Walker King calls it a racist insult and an assault against Maya's race and self-image.[53] According to scholar Sidonie Ann Smith, the renaming emphasizes Maya's feelings of inadequacy and denigrates her identity, individuality, and uniqueness. Maya understands that she is being insulted and rebels by breaking Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dish.[54]

An incident in the book that solidifies Maya's identity is her trip to Mexico with her father, when she has to drive a car for the first time. Contrasted with her experience in Stamps, Maya is finally "in control of her fate".[55] This experience is central to Maya's growth, as is the incident that immediately follows it, her short period of homelessness after arguing with her father's girlfriend. These two incidents give Maya a knowledge of self-determination and confirm her self-worth.[55]

Beginning in Caged Bird, motherhood is a "prevailing theme"[5] in Angelou's autobiographies. Scholar Mary Burgher believes that female Black autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers as "breeder and matriarch", and have presented them as having "a creative and personally fulfilling role".[56] Lupton believes that Angelou's plot construction and character development were influenced by the same mother/child motif found in the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Jessie Fauset.[57] For the first five years of her life, Maya thinks of herself as an orphan and finds comfort in the thought that her mother was dead. Maya's feelings for and relationship with her own mother, whom she blames for her abandonment, express themselves in ambivalence and "repressed violent aggression".[58] For example, Maya and her brother destroy the first Christmas gifts sent by their mother. These strong feelings are not resolved until the end of the book, when Maya becomes a mother herself, and her mother finally becomes the nurturing presence for which Maya has longed.[59] The two main maternal influences on Maya's life change as well; Vivian becomes a more active participant, while Momma becomes less effective as Maya, by becoming a mother herself, moves from childhood to adulthood.[60]


Stamps, Arkansas, as depicted in Caged Bird, has very little "social ambiguity": it is a racist world divided between Black and white, male and female.[39] Als characterizes the division as "good and evil", and notes how Angelou's witness of the evil in her society, which was directed at Black women, shaped Angelou's young life and informed her views into adulthood.[39] Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage, described in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, as a prominent symbol throughout her series of autobiographies.[61][62] Like elements within a prison narrative, the caged bird represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and oppression.[63] The caged bird metaphor also invokes the "supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle".[62] Scholar Ernece B. Kelley calls Caged Bird a "gentle indictment of white American womanhood";[64] Hagen expands it further, stating that the book is "a dismaying story of white dominance".[64]

Caged Bird has been called "perhaps the most aesthetically satisfying autobiography written in the years immediately following the Civil Rights era".[65] Critic Pierre A. Walker agrees, and places it in the African American literature tradition of political protest.[2] Angelou demonstrates, through her involvement with the Black community of Stamps, as well as her presentation of vivid and realistic racist characters and "the vulgarity of white Southern attitudes toward African Americans",[66] her developing understanding of the rules for surviving in a racist society. Angelou's autobiographies, beginning with Caged Bird, contain a sequence of lessons about resisting oppression. The sequence she describes leads Angelou, as the protagonist, from "helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest".[2]

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.

—The final stanza of Maya Angelou's poem "Caged Bird"[67]

Walker insists that Angelou's treatment of racism is what gives her autobiographies their thematic unity and underscores one of their central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it. The structure of Caged Bird helps to illustrate this theme. Caged Bird, like most autobiographies, begins with Angelou's earliest memories, but she relates events non-chronologically. For example, the description of the "powhitetrash" girls taunting Maya's grandmother appears in chapter five when Maya was about ten years old, two years after her rape, which occurs in chapter twelve. Maya reacts to the "powhitetrash" incident with rage, indignation, humiliation, and helplessness, but Momma teaches her how they can maintain their personal dignity and pride while dealing with racism. Walker calls Momma's way a "strategy of subtle resistance"[68] and McPherson calls it "the dignified course of silent endurance".[69]

In the course of her book, Angelou demonstrates that Momma's approach to coping with racism serves as a basis for actively protesting and combating racism. Momma is portrayed as a realist whose patience, courage, and silence ensured the survival and success of those who came after her.[70] For example, Maya breaks the race barrier to become the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco, and responds assertively to the demeaning treatment by her white employer Mrs. Cullinan.[71] In addition, Angelou's description of the strong and cohesive black community of Stamps demonstrates how African Americans subvert repressive institutions to withstand racism.[72] Arensberg insists that Angelou demonstrates how she, as a Black child, evolves out of her "racial hatred",[73] common in the works of many contemporary Black novelists and autobiographers. At first Maya wishes that she could become white, since growing up Black in white America is dangerous; later she sheds her self-loathing and embraces a strong racial identity.[73]


It should be clear, however, that this portrayal of rape is hardly titillating or "pornographic." It raises issues of trust, truth and lie, love, the naturalness of a child's craving for human contact, language and understanding, and the confusion engendered by the power disparities that necessarily exist between children and adults.

–Opal Moore[74]

Angelou's description of being raped as an eight-year-old child overwhelms the autobiography, although it is presented briefly in the text.[75] Scholar Mary Vermillion compares Angelou's treatment of rape to that of Harriet Jacobs in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs and Angelou both use rape as a metaphor for the suffering of African Americans; Jacobs uses the metaphor to critique slaveholding culture, while Angelou uses it to first internalize, then challenge, twentieth-century racist conceptions of the Black female body (namely, that the Black female is physically unattractive).[76] Rape, according to Vermillion, "represents the black girl's difficulties in controlling, understanding, and respecting both her body and her words".[77]

Arensberg notes that Maya's rape is connected to the theme of death in Caged Bird, as Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Maya's brother Bailey if she tells anyone about the rape. After Maya lies during Freeman's trial, stating that the rape was the first time he touched her inappropriately, Freeman is murdered (presumably by one of Maya's uncles) and Maya sees her words as a bringer of death. As a result, she resolves never to speak to anyone other than Bailey. Angelou connects the violation of her body and the devaluation of her words through the depiction of her self-imposed, five-year-long silence.[78] As Angelou later stated, "I thought if I spoke, my mouth would just issue out something that would kill people, randomly, so it was better not to talk".[79]

Maya's rape demonstrates how as a Black woman, she is violated as she moves from childhood to adolescence.[5] African American literature scholar Selwyn R. Cudjoe calls its depiction "a burden": a demonstration of "the manner in which the Black female is violated in her tender years and ... the 'unnecessary insult' of Southern girlhood in her movement to adolescence".[5] Vermillion goes further, maintaining that a Black woman who writes about her rape risks reinforcing negative stereotypes about her race and gender.[80] When asked decades later how she was able to survive such trauma, Angelou explained it by stating, "I can't remember a time when I wasn't loved by somebody."[81] When asked by the same interviewer why she wrote about the experience, she indicated that she wanted to demonstrate the complexities of rape. She also wanted to prevent it from happening to someone else, so that anyone who had been raped might gain understanding and not blame herself for it.[82]


As Lupton points out, all of Angelou's autobiographies, especially Caged Bird and its immediate sequel Gather Together in My Name, are "very much concerned with what [Angelou] knew and how she learned it". Lupton compares Angelou's informal education with the education of other Black writers of the twentieth century, who did not earn official degrees and depended upon the "direct instruction of African American cultural forms".[84] Angelou's quest for learning and literacy parallels "the central myth of black culture in America":[85] that freedom and literacy are connected. Angelou is influenced by writers introduced to her by Mrs. Flowers during her self-imposed muteness, including Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare. Angelou states, early in Caged Bird, that she, as the Maya character, "met and fell in love with William Shakespeare".[86] Critic Mary Vermillion sees a connection between Maya's rape and Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece", which Maya memorizes and recites when she regains her speech. Vermillion maintains that Maya finds comfort in the poem's identification with suffering.[87] Maya finds novels and their characters complete and meaningful, so she uses them to make sense of her bewildering world. She is so involved in her fantasy world of books that she even uses them as a way to cope with her rape,[88] writing in Caged Bird, "...I was sure that any minute my mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save me".[89]

According to Walker, the power of words is another theme that appears repeatedly in Caged Bird. For example, Maya chooses to not speak after her rape because she is afraid of the destructive power of words. Mrs. Flowers, by introducing her to classic literature and poetry, teaches her about the positive power of language and empowers Maya to speak again.[90] The importance of both the spoken and written word also appears repeatedly in Caged Bird and in all of Angelou's autobiographies.[note 2] Referring to the importance of literacy and methods of effective writing, Angelou once advised Oprah Winfrey in an 1993 interview to "do as West Africans do ... listen to the deep talk", or the "utterances existing beneath the obvious".[92] McPherson says, "If there is one stable element in Angelou's youth it is [a] dependence upon books". The public library is a "quiet refuge" to which Maya retreats when she experiences crisis.[88] Hagen describes Angelou as a "natural storyteller",[93] with an ear for dialogue that reflect someone who is a good listener with a rich oral heritage. Hagen also insists that Angelou's years of muteness provided her with this skill.

Angelou was also powerfully affected by slave narratives, spirituals, poetry, and other autobiographies.[94] Angelou read through the Bible twice as a young child, and memorized many passages from it.[93] African-American spirituality, as represented by Angelou's grandmother, has influenced all of Angelou's writings, in the activities of the church community she first experiences in Stamps, in the sermonizing, and in scripture.[91] Hagen goes on to say that in addition to being influenced by rich literary form, Angelou has also been influenced by oral traditions. In Caged Bird, Mrs. Flowers encourages her to listen carefully to "Mother Wit",[95] which Hagen defines as the collective wisdom of the African-American community as expressed in folklore and humor.[96][note 3]

Angelou's humor in Caged Bird and in all her autobiographies is drawn from Black folklore and is used to demonstrate that in spite of severe racism and oppression, they thrive and are, as Hagen states, "a community of song and laughter and courage".[98] Hagen states that Angelou is able to make an indictment of institutionalized racism as she laughs at her flaws and the flaws of her community and "balances stories of black endurance of oppression against white myths and misperceptions".[98] Hagan goes on to characterize Caged Bird as a "blues genre autobiography"[99] because it uses elements of blues music. These elements include the act of testimony when speaking of one's life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations. Hagan also sees elements of African American sermonizing in Caged Bird. Angelou's use of African American oral traditions creates a sense of community in her readers, and identifies those who belong to it.[100]

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