I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis

Maya Angelou

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In this first of five volumes of autobiography, Maya Angelou tells the story of her life from age three, when her divorcing parents sent her and her brother to live with their maternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, to age sixteen, when, reunited with her mother in San Francisco, she gave birth to her son. Thus her story begins with semi-orphanhood and ends with motherhood. Interpreting her quest for freedom and self-affirmation as representative of that of many African Americans and American women—especially black American women—she presents incidents from her life that illustrate conditions faced by many persons. In her case, these conditions result, after much struggle, in a moment and message of hope.

Angelou begins her narrative with a painful incident that she does not date but that seems appropriate to age six or seven. In a church recitation, Maya cannot bring herself to remember the lines of an Easter poem beyond the first two, which seem to her to express her constant state of temporariness as a displaced orphan and humiliated outcast. Her dream of being beautiful, understood, and accepted—all of which she has imagined in terms of being white—is shattered, and her mind is occupied with thoughts of persecution, impending death, and imperative self-restraint. She feels about to burst; her means of release, the socially unacceptable one of urinating in her pants, merely reinforces her predicament.

After this introduction, Angelou turns to her arrival in Stamps at age three and proceeds by chronicling her emotional development, with reflection upon the implications of her experiences for understanding racism, sexism, and the general human condition. Her story is divided into four parts that take place in three settings: in Stamps with her grandmother (whom she called “Momma”) and Uncle Willie, from age three through seven; in St. Louis with her mother and her mother’s parents, brothers, and boyfriend, while she was eight; back in Stamps from age nine to thirteen; and in California with her mother, to age sixteen. Her brother was her constant companion during all but the last year.

The Johnsons in Stamps and the Baxters in St. Louis were relatively well-off black families, featuring strong and influential women. In Stamps, Momma owned properties that she rented to poor whites and owned and operated the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, which served as a lay center for the black community. Her family attended the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The sensitive, curious, and thoughtful Maya was in a position to observe a wide range of black experiences, roles, character types, and patterns of expression. She tells, for example, of bone-weary cotton pickers caught in economic enslavement within the general impoverishment of African Americans; a threat to Uncle Willie’s life by the Ku Klux Klan; the complete segregation in Stamps, with its resulting ignorance and prejudice on the part of both whites and African Americans; a confrontation between Momma and some racially insulting children of her tenants; and the antics of enthused parishioners during services, in contrast to Momma’s more reserved role and behavior.

For Maya, all of this was happening in the context of protection by Momma’s loving and authoritative competence and Bailey’s loving companionship. Family life in the store included disciplined study of arithmetic; leisurely reading of novels, poetry, and Shakespeare; and lessons on deportment and avoidance of trouble with whites.

Taken suddenly at age eight to live in St. Louis, Maya found her mother, whom she had known only as someone who had abandoned her and who probably was dead, to be a wonder of light-skinned beauty and hurricane energy, in constant social demand. Grandmother Baxter, whose features would not identify her as black, had connections with the St. Louis underworld, with the police, and with local politicians, and her uncles were the terror of the black community. Experiencing neglect by her mother, Maya fought against considering St. Louis her home but nevertheless suffered nightmares (Bailey developed a stutter). She felt sorry for Mr. Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend, who suffered similar neglect; when he began to abuse her sexually, an abuse at first accompanied by gestures of affection, she fantasized that at last she had found her real father. At his trial for rape, she denied any earlier contact; when Freeman, briefly out of jail, was kicked to death, she believed that her lie had caused his death and that her speaking might bring death to others. She stopped talking, except to Bailey, and when the Baxters could no longer tolerate what they took to be her impudence, they sent her and Bailey back to Stamps.

Back in a community environment of quiet resignation, Maya could relax, but for a year she did not talk, and she suffered from memory loss and dulled senses. Then Momma introduced her to Bertha Flowers, a beautiful and educated black woman who brought Maya out of her cocoon by giving her special attention that focused on love of the human voice in the recitation of literature. By age ten, Maya had gained sufficient self-esteem not only to converse normally but also to work in a white woman’s home and, furthermore, to retaliate when that woman made a racist assault upon her name. Shortly thereafter, she met a girl like herself, with whom she was finally able to be girlish and to share speculations about romance.

In Stamps, however, Maya and Bailey were again surrounded by racists. Even their religious experiences, in church, revival tent, and home, focused on the community’s and Momma’s teachings about inequality, persecution, and justice. As the children grew older, they increasingly came under attack. When Maya was graduated from the eighth grade, a white speaker made it clear that the graduates had no realistic intellectual ambitions. When Momma desperately took Maya to a white dentist to whom Momma had given a loan, he viciously turned them away. Then, when fourteen-year-old Bailey was ordered by a white man to help carry the corpse of a lynched man into the jail, Momma decided that the children must rejoin their mother, now living in San Francisco.

In California, Maya found her mother just as beautiful and active, but more attentive; the man she had married made a good stepfather, and life in the city, with its fluidity and diversity, was exactly to Maya’s liking. She performed well in school and took evening classes in drama and dance. When, at age fifteen, she went to spend the summer with her father, several experiences quickened the pace of her maturation. With her drunken father asleep in the back seat, she commanded a bucking automobile down a mountain road out of Mexico. Then, after a fight with her father’s girlfriend, Maya ran away and lived for a month in an automobile junkyard with an interracial group of homeless children. By the time she returned to San Francisco, she had been initiated into self-reliance, social self-confidence, and human brotherhood; and there, after a determined campaign, she became the city’s first black female streetcar conductor. Her growing independence and awareness also precipitated a final crisis of her youth. When anxiety about her sexuality led her to experiment, she became pregnant. Angelou ends her story with the birth of her son, Guy, and her discovery, with her mother’s help, that she could trust herself to care for her child.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

The American Library Association repeatedly included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on its lists of the most frequently challenged books during the 1980’s and 1990’s. People for the American Way reported it as the ninth-most challenged book in American public schools. Angelou’s steamy autobiography of her early years has offended many parents and pressure groups who want the book banned from schools and libraries. They have objected to the book’s grimly graphic descriptions of child molestation, its explicit sex scenes, its coarse language, its irreverent attitude toward institutional religions, and its pervading bitterness toward whites and the racism of the 1930’s. They have particularly objected to a key scene of an incestuous rape and to Angelou’s account of her own out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. In attacking the autobiography as indecent and religiously offensive, challengers have overlooked Angelou’s purpose: to inspire others by showing how she overcame poverty, abuse, social barriers, and low self-esteem to reach artistic success, acclaim, and a sense of personal dignity.

Bibliography

Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. An excellent collection of interviews with Angelou, arranged chronologically from 1971 to 1988. Contains a useful introduction, a chronology, and an index, as well as photographs of Angelou.

Angelou, Maya. Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974. This book, a combination of fiction and nonfiction, begins with a dedication both to Angelou’s “blood brother” Bailey and to a group of “real brothers.” A continuation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it explores Angelou’s struggles as a single parent and provider.

Angelou, Maya. The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House, 1981. This autobiography, which begins with a dedication to a group of women that Angelou calls “Sister/friends,” covers Angelou’s early mature years as a writer. In it, she explores her creativity and her success.

Angelou, Maya. “An Interview with Maya Angelou.” The Massachusetts Review 28 (Spring, 87): 286–292. Remarks on the art of autobiography, including the narrative voice, the selectivity of memory, and the effects of the writing process.

Angelou, Maya. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. New York: Random House, 1976. The autobiography covers the time of Angelou’s stage debut through her international tour with Porgy and Bess.

Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Language Association Journal 20 (1976): 273–291. Asserts that Angelou’s narrative of her girlhood is empowered by tension between quest for a life-affirming identity and obsession with annihilation. In order to adapt to the early threat of breakdown of identity, she developed a self-defense of mutability, of which the pervasive metaphor is death. The birth of her son brings about Maya’s psychological rebirth into a woman who can trust herself to be life-giving, nourishing, and protecting.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Argues that Angelou uses the child’s vision as principle of selection and the protecting mother as primary archetype, bringing to fruition certain themes of black female autobiography: the importance of family and of rearing one’s children, resistance to a hostile environment, sympathy, and self-definition.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “The Metamorphosis of Matrilinearism in Women’s Autobiography.” In Women’s Autobiography, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of four modern women’s autobiographies analyzed.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Myth and History: Discourse of Origins in Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 221-235. Discusses plot and themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings along with Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

Graham, Joyce. “Making Language Sing: An Interview with Maya Angelou.” Journal of Reading 34 (February, 1991): 406-410. Angelou discusses her technique writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and what she tried to achieve artistically.

Kent, George E. “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition.” Kansas Quarterly 7, no. 3 (1975): 72–78. Kent asserts that Angelou presents an emerging self equipped with an imagination that can successfully engage intransigent institutions, perceive both the beauty and absurdity of life in black communities, and create its own coherence.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 257-276. Shows how Angelou achieves continuity from one autobiographical volume to the next. Analyzes her autobiographical series with particular emphasis on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the theme of motherhood.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Mother Wit: Humor in African-American Women’s Autobiography.” Studies in American Humor 4 (Spring/Summer, 1985): 51–61. Notes that empowerment through the acquisition of language and the development of verbal humor is a unifying theme in Angelou’s autobiography.

McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird.” South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (1976): 106–111. Angelou shows that individuals and groups can artistically humanize static, institutionalized roles to facilitate inter-relationship and affirm self.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Examines the organization of Angelou’s autobiographical works around certain recurring themes. An addendum contains an insightful and illuminating interview with Angelou that throws new light on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Shuker, Nancy. Maya Angelou. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

Spain, Valerie. Meet Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.

Tate, Claudia. “Maya Angelou.” In Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Angelou talks of the special need of black American women to make images of themselves and to have positive role models. Also discusses her responsibility as a writer and her writing process.

Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22 (1995): 91-108.

Washington, Carla. “Maya Angelou’s Angelic Aura.” The Christian Century 105 (November 16, 1988): 1031-1032. Proposes that Angelou’s work, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has a quality of spirituality. Focuses on the religious events and spiritual concerns of the novel.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

This best-selling autobiographical narrative was Maya Angelou’s first book; it set in motion a writing career to complement her significant work in dance, the theater, and the Civil Rights movement. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a first-person account of Angelou’s life from the age of three, when she arrived in Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her grandmother, to the age of sixteen, when she gave birth out of wedlock to her only child in San Francisco.

In the opening scene Maya flees in embarrassment from the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Stamps after failing to remember her Easter service lines. The succeeding thirty-six chapters depict her life in Stamps, then in St. Louis, back in Stamps, and finally in California through vignettes arranged in chronological order. Angelou relates events from the perspective of the middle-aged adult she was when writing, but she gives them the flavor and personality of the child experiencing them. The resulting combination of a black girl’s innocence and the confident, penetrating, sometimes bitter insights of a knowledgeable and successful black woman lend the narrative tension, drama, and force.

The center of Angelou’s life in Stamps was the general store owned by her grandmother, Annie Henderson—“Momma” to Maya and her brother Bailey, who was a year older and her closest friend throughout childhood. Maya recalls optimistic mornings when black cotton pickers met at the store and their despairing evening return from the fields. She remembers helping to hide Uncle Willie in a vegetable bin in the store after a condescending former sheriff warns, “A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.” She recalls an incident in front of the store when some white children torment “Momma,” who keeps her dignity but says nothing.

She vividly remembers the Joe Louis-Primo Carnera heavyweight championship boxing match, to which everyone listened on the store radio. When the “Brown Bomber” Louis began to get the upper hand, Angelou recalls: “Some bitter comedian on the porch said, ‘That white man don’t mind hugging that niggah now, I betcha.’” Relief and joy greeted Louis’ knockout victory (“If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help”). Afterward, people who had come some distance to listen to the fight made arrangements to spend the night in town: “It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.”

Maya’s father visited Stamps when she was eight—she and her brother never understood why their divorced parents had sent them back to their grandmother— and drove Maya and Bailey to St. Louis to live with their mother. During their year there, Maya was raped by her mother’s live-in lover, who was subsequently murdered, presumably by Maya’s enraged male relatives. Back in Stamps, Maya moped around in sullen silence for a year, but she found direction and pride through her acquaintance with the sophisticated and sympathetic Bertha Flowers, a “lady who threw me my first life line, . . . our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.”

Saturdays, summer picnic fish fries, and Holy Roller revivals left special marks in Maya’s memory. The Holy Rollers energized the otherwise understandably discouraged black community through oblique criticism of the “white folk.” As the preacher put it: “Charity don’t say, ‘Because I give you a job, you got to bend your knee to me.’”

Graduation for the eighth grade class of 1940—“the whole young population had come down with graduation epidemic”—was almost ruined by an insensitive, patronizing white guest speaker. Nevertheless, the ceremony ended in bold jubilation with everyone joining the class valedictorian, who concluded his speech with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Angelou explains, “It was the poem written by James Weldon Jones. It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro national anthem.”

Among her last memories of Stamps is the day Momma took her to the local white dentist to have two painful teeth pulled. The dentist, who had borrowed money from Momma during the Depression, refused to treat Maya, telling Momma, “Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.” Momma then demanded interest on the money she had previously lent the dentist; with that ten dollars, she took Maya by bus to a dentist in Texarkana.

At thirteen Maya left Arkansas for good. Momma took her and Bailey to live in Los Angeles for six months. Momma then returned to Stamps, while Maya and Bailey joined their mother in San Francisco. It was during World War II, and blacks had taken over the formerly Japanese Fillmore section. Maya had an inspiring teacher named Miss Kirwin at George Washington High School, and she won a scholarship to study drama and dance at night at the California Labor School. Her mother was married to a wealthy, self-made man named Daddy Clidell. In their building lived black con artists who regaled Maya with wonderful tales of outwitting whites.

Maya traveled to Los Angeles to spend the summer with her father. Formerly a doorman at the Breakers Hotel in Santa Monica and then a member of the kitchen staff at a navy hospital, Bailey Johnson, Sr., lived in a mobile home with a woman who knifed Maya, who had started a fight when the woman had called Maya’s mother a whore. After the fight, Maya decided to strike out on her own and lived for a month in an abandoned automobile in a junkyard in the company of other young blacks doing the same. Upon her return to San Francisco, she became an assistant streetcar conductor. Bailey, who had fought with his mother, left home to start his own life as a dining-car waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Angelou remembers herself at fifteen as not pretty, nearly six feet tall, and flat chested. She worried about the possibility of being a lesbian and as a result decided to have sex with a handsome young man who lived in the neighborhood. It was a forgettable encounter but had one long-lasting result: Maya got pregnant. After finishing high school, she gave birth at sixteen. Her recollection of sleeping peacefully and protectively next to her newborn son brings the autobiographical narrative to a close.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells her story: that of a Southern black girl moved from place to place, along with her brother Bailey, after their parents’ divorce. The book is divided into thirty-six chapters and begins with a vignette, a sketch of the young Maya trying unsuccessfully to recite an Easter poem in church. She cannot remember the words. “Peeing and crying” in fear, she flees the church and concludes, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” With this cultural setting, Angelou shifts to Long Beach, California, in 1931, where Maya and Bailey Johnson, Jr., ages three and four, are being sent by train to the home of their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson (called Momma), in Stamps, Arkansas. From there, the chapters are arranged chronologically and geographically, following Angelou’s youth to the age of sixteen and the displacements of the children—to Stamps, to St. Louis, back to Stamps, to Los Angeles, and finally, to San Francisco. Along with the geographical displacements are familial displacements, as Angelou lives with her parents, with Momma and Uncle Willie, with her mother and Mr. Freeman, with Grandmother Baxter, with her father and his girlfriend, and with her mother and stepfather, Daddy Clidell.

Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after several requests from Random House publishers. Though it is an autobiography, it is also an exploration of survival. In a 1983 interview, Angelou says,When I wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I wasn’t thinking so much about my own life and identity. I was thinking about a particular time in which I lived and the influences of that time on a number of people. I kept thinking, what about that time? What were the people around young Maya doing? I used the central figure—myself—as a focus to show how one person can make it through those times.

Angelou talks about her survival as a black Southern girl in a society that devalues her beauty, talent, and ambition.

She contends that all of her work is “about survival.” The sketches in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings support her contention. Although parts of the book are humorous, such as the revival scene in chapter 6, when Sister Monroe knocks out Reverend Thomas’ false teeth, many of the sketches deal with painful struggles for survival, such as the encounter between Momma and the racist white dentist who will not treat Angelou and the rape of the eight-year-old Maya.

In 1979, when Angelou was adapting I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for film, she became keenly aware of the story line. She described it as “very delicate.” It is the story of surviving both racism and childhood, and it culminates in a scene of the sixteen-year-old Angelou, having recently been graduated from high school, lying in bed and snuggling close to her three-week-old son, the result of a brief and loveless encounter with a teenage boy. Angelou’s second autobiographical novel, Gather Together in My Name (1974), takes the story from there.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In a 1973 interview, Maya Angelou was referred to as a Renaissance woman. The term is apt: She is an author of nonfiction, drama, and poetry; a stage and screen performer; a nightclub singer; a dancer; a producer; an editor; a television host of documentaries and educational films; a university teacher; and a social and political activist. Surviving her childhood rape, institutionalized racism, a teenage pregnancy, and, later, prostitution, Angelou emerged as a voice in American literature and politics.

In addition to her many honorary degrees, Angelou has received numerous other awards. In 1954 and 1955, Angelou, participating in Porgy and Bess, was sponsored by the United States Department of State to tour twenty-two countries. In 1959 and 1960, Angelou was appointed Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1972, Angelou became the first black woman to have an original script produced, and the same year, she received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971). She received a Tony nomination in 1973. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. Angelou was named Woman of the Year in 1976 by the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1977, she was named by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. Also in 1977, she received another Tony nomination, and she received the Golden Eagle award from the Public Broadcasting System for her documentary series Afro-American in the Arts. In 1982, she received a lifetime appointment as Reynold’s Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (This appointment, which lets her teach any subject in the humanities, is usually for two to five years. In an interview, Angelou remarked that her lifetime appointment “didn’t sit well with some of the white male professors.”) In 1984 and 1985, Angelou was appointed by Governor James B. Hunt to the Board of the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1992, Angelou accepted an invitation from President Bill Clinton to compose and read a poem at his inauguration.

Through these experiences, Angelou has continually reexamined her views, discarding those that she no longer accepts. For example, in her early years as a writer, Angelou called herself a “womanist” rather than a “feminist,” because she believed that feminists lacked humor. In contrast, in 1986, when an interviewer asked Angelou if she were a feminist, Angelou responded, “I am a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” When the interviewer commented that she had not always held this opinion, Angelou admitted that her views had changed. Nevertheless, Angelou often contrasts black women’s issues and white women’s issues, believing that their positions in history and culture make their views different. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou describes several black women: Momma, her mother, Grandmother Baxter, and Mrs. Bertha Flowers. It is not until her later books, such as The Heart of a Woman (1981), however, that Angelou begins to explore the significance of womanhood in general.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, who was born Marguerite Johnson, recounts her experiences as an African-American youth in the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s. She candidly explores the complexities of racism, family life, and growing up. The thirty-six chapters of Angelou’s 250-page autobiography are arranged chronologically and geographically, following Angelou and her brother, Bailey, from home to home.

Angelou sets the tone of the autobiography with a three-page vignette preceding the first chapter. She describes herself as a young child standing before a congregation in a church and reciting an Easter poem. She forgets her lines, becomes nervous, and flees the church. Angelou’s flight from a traditional sanctuary, where she has found only discomfort, will be one of many flights.

In 1931, when Marguerite and Bailey Johnson began their moves, she was three and he was four. Their parents, on the verge of divorce, sent the children by train from Long Beach, California, to the home of the children’s paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson (Momma), who ran the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—called the Store—in Stamps, Arkansas, with the help of Uncle Willie, their father’s crippled brother. During the next fifteen years, the children moved to St. Louis, Missouri, then back to Stamps, then to Los Angeles, and later to San Francisco. They lived with Momma and Uncle Willie, with their mother and her boyfriend, with their maternal grandmother, with their father and his girlfriend, and finally with their mother and their new stepfather. Angelou even spent a month living in a junkyard. Bailey ultimately joined the merchant marines.

Despite the transience of her childhood, Angelou brings a coherence to her autobiography by organizing it into a series of sketches and narratives. Some of the sketches will make readers laugh, such as the description of the revival at which Sister Monroe, in her religious zeal, attacked Reverend Thomas and knocked out his false teeth or the account of Angelou’s revenge against Viola Cullinan, who stripped Angelou of her name. Other sketches convey the depth of her love and admiration for others, such as her portraits of her brother, who was her “unshakable God,” and of Bertha Flowers, who introduced Angelou to poetry. Still other sketches recount painful events of Angelou’s youth, such as the rape that hospitalized her when she was eight years old and the confrontation between Momma and the white dentist who refused to treat Angelou because he was racist. With these sketches, the poetic voice of the author unifies an otherwise fragmented childhood. She makes her life—from age three through high-school graduation and the birth of her child shortly after—coherent by painting in words the world that she knew.

Angelou desentimentalizes the image of African-American cotton pickers, shows the consolation of the religious revivals held at night in tents, and helps readers to understand the power of a symbol such as boxer Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber. For example, in Momma’s Store, the tired field workers gathered one evening to hear Louis fight Primo Carnera. Louis was caught on the ropes.My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

While Louis was on the ropes, Angelou continued, “We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.” When Louis came back, so did Angelou’s people; when he won, they did.

Although the sketches and the chronology hold I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings together, the strong, life-affirming voice of the author also unifies the autobiography. Just as the book begins with a child, reciting a half-remembered Easter poem, it ends with a child. Angelou, just out of high school, lies in her bed, snuggled close to her three-week-old infant.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Related Titles

The success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings encouraged Angelou and her publishers to publish four additional autobiographical novels that cover the years following the birth of her son. These works have been received with the same enthusiasm as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and continue the themes expressed there: racism and religion.

Gather Together in My Name (1974) describes how she supported herself and her child. Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976) is about an unsuccessful marriage and her theatrical career. The Heart of a Woman (1981) is concerned with the 1950s and 1960s, and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) tells about the four...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Adaptations

The television version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was presented in 1979 by CBS as its Saturday Night Movie. In collaboration with Leonora Thuna, Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay. The direction was by Fielder Cook.

The television adaptation focuses on the tone of the story — the pathos of the situation of the black community in the Depression-era South — instead of dramatic suspense to advance the plot of the story.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Historical Context

Conflicts over Civil Rights
Although the action in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes place in the early 1930s through...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Compare and Contrast

1930s: Blacks are barred from voting in the South; although this discrimination by race is illegal, states use poll taxes and other...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Topics for Further Study

Research the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s and 1940s and today. Note any changes in the activities of this organization over the...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Media Adaptations

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a TV movie in 1979 starring Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosely,...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings What Do I Read Next?

Other autobiographical volumes by Maya Angelou include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Bibliography and Further Reading

“A Wake-up Call from a Poet,” U.S. News and World Report, February 1, 1993, p. 6–7.

“The Essence Award Winners,”...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. An excellent collection of interviews with Angelou, arranged chronologically from 1971 to 1988. Contains a useful introduction, a chronology, and an index, as well as photographs of Angelou.

Angelou, Maya. Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974. This book, a combination of fiction and nonfiction, begins with a dedication both to Angelou’s “blood brother” Bailey and to a group of “real brothers.” A continuation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it explores Angelou’s struggles as a single parent and provider.

Angelou, Maya. The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House, 1981. This autobiography, which begins with a dedication to a group of women that Angelou calls “Sister/friends,” covers Angelou’s early mature years as a writer. In it, she explores her creativity and her success.

Angelou, Maya. “An Interview with Maya Angelou.” The Massachusetts Review 28 (Spring, 87): 286-292. Remarks on the art of autobiography, including the narrative voice, the selectivity of memory, and the effects of the writing process.

Angelou, Maya. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. New York: Random House, 1976. The autobiography covers the time of Angelou’s stage debut through her international tour with Porgy and Bess.

Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Language Association Journal 20 (1976): 273-291. Asserts that Angelou’s narrative of her girlhood is empowered by tension between quest for a life-affirming identity and obsession with annihilation. In order to adapt to the early threat of breakdown of identity, she developed a self-defense of mutability, of which the pervasive metaphor is death. The birth of her son brings about Maya’s psychological rebirth into a woman who can trust herself to be life-giving, nourishing, and protecting.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Argues that Angelou uses the child’s vision as principle of selection and the protecting mother as primary archetype, bringing to fruition certain themes of black female autobiography: the importance of family and of rearing one’s children, resistance to a hostile environment, sympathy, and self-definition.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “The Metamorphosis of Matrilinearism in Women’s Autobiography.” In Women’s Autobiography, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of four modern women’s autobiographies analyzed.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Myth and History: Discourse of Origins in Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 221-235. Discusses plot and themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings along with Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

Graham, Joyce. “Making Language Sing: An Interview with Maya Angelou.” Journal of Reading 34 (February, 1991): 406-410. Angelou discusses her technique writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and what she tried to achieve artistically.

Kent, George E. “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition.” Kansas Quarterly 7, no. 3 (1975): 72-78. Kent asserts that Angelou presents an emerging self equipped with an imagination that can successfully engage intransigent institutions, perceive both the beauty and absurdity of life in black communities, and create its own coherence.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 257-276. Shows how Angelou achieves continuity from one autobiographical volume to the next. Analyzes her autobiographical series with particular emphasis on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the theme of motherhood.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Mother Wit: Humor in African-American Women’s Autobiography.” Studies in American Humor 4 (Spring/Summer, 1985): 51-61. Notes that empowerment through the acquisition of language and the development of verbal humor is a unifying theme in Angelou’s autobiography.

McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird.” South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (1976): 106-111. Angelou shows that individuals and groups can artistically humanize static, institutionalized roles to facilitate inter-relationship and affirm self.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Examines the organization of Angelou’s autobiographical works around certain recurring themes. An addendum contains an insightful and illuminating interview with Angelou that throws new light on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Moore, Opal. “Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Shuker, Nancy. Maya Angelou. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

Spain, Valerie. Meet Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.

Tate, Claudia. “Maya Angelou.” In Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Angelou talks of the special need of black American women to make images of themselves and to have positive role models. Also discusses her responsibility as a writer and her writing process.

Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22 (1995): 91-108.

Washington, Carla. “Maya Angelou’s Angelic Aura.” The Christian Century 105 (November 16, 1988): 1031-1032. Proposes that Angelou’s work, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has a quality of spirituality. Focuses on the religious events and spiritual concerns of the novel.