I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Religion as Healing (Motif)

Religion occupies a pivotal place in the lives of some of the characters. Most notable is Momma, who tries her hardest to raise Maya and Bailey to be staunchly god-fearing people. Momma uses her faith to guide her through her life and to dictate most of her decisions. During the Stamps revival meeting, we see how religion can also be a healing or coping force, and not only a decision-making one. The passionate preaching and worship during the meeting revives the weary, bone-tired cotton pickers, and reminds them that though life is hard, they have the Lord in their corner. This reminder serves as a panacea for racism’s attacks, and heals the spiritual and mental wounds of the Black people of Stamps.

San Francisco (Symbol)

Maya develops a deep and “impartial” love for San Francisco, a love she “arrogantly” thinks no one else can match (353). To Maya, San Francisco symbolizes “a state of beauty” and “a state of freedom” (353). This is because she feels free in San Francisco in a way she has never felt in rural Arkansas. The pressures of racism and white supremacy are not felt as acutely in San Francisco as they are in Stamps because segregation is not as heavily enforced or encouraged in California. Racism does exist in San Francisco, as we see when Maya struggles to become the first Black streetcar conductor. However, Maya’s ability to eventually secure this job, one that she never could have gotten in Arkansas or other Southern states, is a testament to California’s role as a place of (limited) freedom for Black people.

The Caged Bird (Allegory)

The title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is derived from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” In this poem Dunbar tells the story of a caged bird that wants to reach the beauty of the outside world but is trapped within “cruel bars.” The bird beats its wings against the bars in an attempt to escape, but the bars are too strong. All the bird can do is sing a prayer towards Heaven, a prayer that expresses its desire for freedom. The story of the caged bird is an allegory for the situation Maya finds her in. She wants access to all of the opportunities and choices of the wider world, but racism and white supremacy prevents her from reaching them. They are Maya’s bars, or the cage that keeps her imprisoned. The song or prayer that Maya flings up to Heaven is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings itself. It is Angelou’s way of achieving freedom. With Caged Bird Angelou became one of the first Black women to center herself in her own writings. She has broken the bars of her cage, and has gained access to the opportunities and choices that white writers enjoy.

Joe Louis (Symbol)

A famous American boxer, Joe Louis was one of the first Black athletes to be a national hero in the American imaginary. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a crowd of Stamp’s Black denizens gathers together at Momma’s store to listen to a match of Louis on the radio. As they listen to the match, it becomes clear that for these people, Louis embodies Black Americans as a whole. When he starts to lose momentarily, Angelou writes, “It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped…” (224). And when he wins the match, “Joe Louis [proved] that [Black people] were the strongest people in the world” (227). To the Black people of Stamps and beyond, he represents them in the world.

The Store (Symbol)

The Store is owned and operated by Momma, a fact that is extraordinary in mid-20th-century America. At this time, most Black Southerners were barely scraping out existences for themselves and their families. Momma’s Store, a business owned by a Black woman, is an anomaly for this time. Thus, the Store symbolizes Black excellence and success against the odds.