I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been called an autobiography by some and a novel by others. Organized episodically, it moves chronologically from the early 1930’s through the early 1940’s. It begins when Marguerite and Bailey are three and four and ends just after V-Day and Marguerite’s high school graduation. In describing what happens to the main character, Marguerite Johnson, it shows what happens in the black communities of Stamps, Arkansas; St. Louis; and parts of wartime California.
Autobiographical elements include what happens to Marguerite and her family and how she feels, as an adult, about the people and events. The novelistic elements include her graphic and detailed reconstruction of long-past events and conversations. The resulting work creates a character in Marguerite who is intelligent, curious, perceptive, and fascinated by all kinds of things. What she endures, the events and people who touch her life, are blended into a mélange of appealing stories.
Nearly every episode seems to have at least one of two aims—to give a picture of what it was like to be an African American during the Great Depression and World War II, and to show how one very determined black girl faced obstacles, overcame them, and triumphed. The dangers of being black in the days before the civil rights struggle are illustrated in the episode in which crippled Uncle Willie must hide all night in a compartment of the store’s potato bin because the Ku Klux Klan is on the rampage. Another episode shows Marguerite working as a maid in a white household and being called “Mary” because the white mistress of the house decides “Marguerite” is too much name for her to have to say. When the entire black community of Stamps gathers around the store’s radio to hear the Joe Louis-Primo Carnera fight, Maya Angelou re-creates the pride blacks felt in their hero. When it seems that Louis might lose, she writes, “my race groaned. It was our people falling. . . . A Black boy whipped and maimed . . . hounds on the trail of a man . . . a white woman slapping her maid. . . . We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.” Then when Louis knocks out his white opponent and is announced “still heavyweight champion of the world,” the black people of Stamps, clearly representative of black people all over America, celebrate. Another time, when Marguerite has a bad toothache, her grandmother takes her to the only dentist in Stamps, a white man to whom Momma lent money during the Depression. He refuses to help, saying, “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth” than in the mouth of any black person. Angelou’s reaction is to fantasize that her grandmother gets revenge by humiliating the dentist and putting him out of business. These and other episodes depict many aspects of the black experience, enhancing what may be conveyed blandly in history books.
Angelou’s affinity for poetry is evident in her writing style, full of poetic imagery and unusual phraseology. She mixes African American sayings and idioms to achieve her own inimitable mode of expression. The book begins with the African American rhyme, “What you looking at me for?/ I didn’t come to stay./ I just came to tell you,/ it’s Easter Day.” She describes “the kissing sounds of the tires” on her father’s car as they drive to St. Louis. A summer afternoon is recalled as “sweetmilk fresh in [her] memory.” Vomiting is described as “My lunch was in my mouth a second time.”
Some figures of speech are not successful. They sometimes require rereading to grasp the intent. Angelou, for example, describes a set of false teeth as “looking empty—and at the same time appearing to contain all the emptiness in the world.” However, for the most part, the language of the narration and of the dialogue is fresh, vivid, and characteristic of twentieth century African American expression.
Angelou’s kind of black family is not often the subject of literature. Her grandparents on both sides are not only hard-working but successful. Hard work has often been shown as the lot of black people, particularly before the 1960’s. Almost always, the result of their labor was minimal subsistence. The Johnsons and the Baxters not only made a good living, they were also in a position to help others. They are seen as realizing to a great extent the American Dream, and Angelou shows herself and her brother Bailey as growing up with the American Dream of being educated and successful.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings does for the southern rural black experience what James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) does for the northern urban black experience. Its historical commentary is instructive about the Depression in the south. The portrayal of a young woman’s search for identity is unforgettable.