Angelou, Maya (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou
(Born as Marguerite Johnson) American novelist, memoirist, poet, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Angelou's novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) through 2000. See also Maya Angelou Criticism.
Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African-American literature, Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a volume of autobiography which details her encounters with Southern racism and her prepubescent rape by her mother's lover. Her literary works—particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—have generated considerable critical and popular interest in part because of their depiction of Angelou's triumph over formidable social obstacles and her struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance. She has since published five additional volumes of autobiography: 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), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father Bailey was a doorkeeper and naval dietician; her mother Vivian was a nurse and realtor. Angelou's family lived in Missouri, Arkansas, and California during her childhood. Angelou attended public schools and studied music, dance, and drama privately. From 1954 to 1955, she appeared in a twenty-two nation tour of the musical Porgy and Bess that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Angelou moved to New York to pursue her acting career and performed in several off-Broadway plays including Calypso Heatwave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1960. In 1960, she accepted a position as an assistant administrator in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Africa. Angelou taught and performed in several plays at the university before returning to the U.S. in 1966. In 1970, Angelou published her first book, the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which focuses on her struggles throughout her formative years and concludes with the birth of her son, Guy, in 1945. In addition to publishing, Angelou has continued to produce, direct, and act in stage productions. In 1974 she directed the film All Day Long and, in 1988, directed the film Down in the Delta. Angelou has held teaching positions at several universities, including the University of California and the University of Kansas. She holds honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University. Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971); a Tony award nomination for best supporting actress in a 1977 production of Roots; and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1992. In 1993 Angelou performed a reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Plot and Major Characters
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles Angelou's life up to age sixteen, providing a child's perspective on the often perplexing and repressive adult world. The work contains a gruesome account of how the eight-year-old Angelou—known as Marguerite Johnson in her childhood—was raped by Mr. Freedman, her mother's lover. Angelou refused to speak for five years following the attack, believing that she had killed her assailant—who was subsequently murdered by her uncles—simply by speaking his name. After her mother moved the family to San Francisco in 1940, Angelou held a job as the first female African-American streetcar conductor while she attended high school. Angelou described herself as “a too big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings concludes with Angelou struggling as a single, teen-aged mother to nurture and protect her newborn son, Guy. Angelou wrote the book, which is the first volume in a series of autobiographies, after friends suggested that she write about her childhood. Angelou spent much of her youth in rural, segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where her pious grandmother ran a general store, and St. Louis, Missouri, where her mother lived. The sense of community and order that Angelou experiences under the tutelage of her Grandmother Henderson in Stamps stands in sharp contrast to the urban, cosmopolitan landscape of St. Louis. Though St. Louis offers opportunity and excitement in many forms, it also is where Angelou is raped, and where social rules and restrictions are ignored or nonexistent. Angelou is cared for in St. Louis, but the noisy city is filled with bustling people, taverns, gambling, and a lifestyle very different from the one in Stamps. In addition to creating a trenchant account of a girl's coming-of-age, Angelou's autobiography also affords insights into the social and political tensions that pervaded much of America during the 1930s.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates many of the dominant conventions of the autobiography genre. The work has a chronological structure, utilizes first-person narration, and is focused on personal development and enrichment. However, the book also embraces characteristics from the fiction genre, including dialogue and vivid, sensory descriptions. Readers have also viewed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a bildungsroman, the story of a young girl's growth and maturation. The book follows Angelou's search for identity and her struggle with sexual abuse, racism, and self-acceptance. The story is dominated by strong African-American women—Angelou's enterprising and pious grandmother, “momma”; the cultured and proud Mrs. Flowers; and Angelou's resourceful and vivacious mother. As Angelou is shuttled between homes, rootlessness and transformation emerge as dominant motifs in the narrative. Critics have often focused on the correlation between language, speech, and identity in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, evidenced by Angelou's suppression and eventual recovery of her own voice. Angelou's recovery from the trauma following her rape signaled her growing sense of self-acceptance and her discovery of her poetic voice.
Considered the strongest of Angelou's autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has garnered critical and commercial success, making Angelou a recognized name in contemporary American literature. Reviewers have praised Angelou's dynamic prose style, poignant humor, and illumination of the African-American consciousness through her portrayal of her own personal experiences. Yet a few educators have asserted that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is inappropriate for children due to Angelou's frank depiction of rape, racism, and teen pregnancy, causing the book to be banned in several school libraries. A number of commentators have placed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings within the tradition of African-American autobiographies, including Richard Wright's Black Boy, Nikki Giovanni's Gemini, and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. Moreover, Angelou's autobiographical work has been perceived as a logical progression from the work of prominent nineteenth-century African-American authors such as Frederick Douglass. Angelou's five subsequent volumes of autobiography have generally been considered inferior, with critics citing their lack of moral complexity and failure to generate empathy or universal appeal.
The Least of These (play) 1966
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (poetry) 1971
Georgia, Georgia (screenplay) 1972
All Day Long (screenplay) 1974
Gather Together in My Name (autobiography) 1974
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (poetry) 1975
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (autobiography) 1976
And Still I Rise (poetry) 1978
The Heart of a Woman (autobiography) 1981
Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (poetry) 1983
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (autobiography) 1986
Now Sheba Sings the Song (poetry) 1987
I Shall Not Be Moved (poetry) 1990
Life Doesn't Frighten Me (poetry) 1993
On the Pulse of the Morning (poetry) 1993
Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (essays) 1993
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (poetry) 1994
My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (juvenilia) 1994
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (poetry) 1994
Soul Looks Back...
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SOURCE: McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird.” South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (May 1976): 106–11.
[In the following essay, McMurry discusses the metaphor of the cage in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]
As a songwriter, journalist, playwright, poet, fiction and screen-writer, Maya Angelou is often asked how she escaped her past. How does one grow up, Black and female, in the rural South of the thirties and forties without being crippled or hardened? Her immediate response, “How the hell do you know I did escape?”1 is subtly deceptive. The evidence of Angelou's creative accomplishments would indicate that she did escape; but a closer look reveals the human and artistic complexity of her awareness. For the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is not an exorcism of or escape from the past, but a transmutation of that past. The almost novelistic clarity of Caged Bird results from the artistic tension between Angelou's recollected self and her authorial consciousness. Implicit in this dual awareness is the knowledge that events are significant not merely in themselves, but also because they have been transcended.
Angelou takes her title from Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “Sympathy.” Dunbar's caged bird sings from the frustration of imprisonment; its song is a prayer. Angelou's caged...
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SOURCE: Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” CLA Journal 20, no. 2 (December 1976): 273–91.
[In the following essay, Arensberg asserts that despite the often witty tone of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the primary theme of the narrative is death.]
When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death, My life has been one great big joke, A dance that's walked A song that's spoke I laugh so hard I almost choke When I think about myself.
In 1970, at a time when most blacks and a growing number of liberal whites affirmed the ad-campaign motto that “Black is Beautiful,” Maya Angelou's autobiography was published. An un-beautiful, awkward, rather morose, dreamy, and “too-big Negro girl,” young Maya Angelou seems an unlikely heroine. Neither the pretty and radiant prom queen of her all-black high school, like Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi, nor the acknowledged genius of her doting family like Nikki Giovanni in Gemini, the child Angelou writes of is unadmired, unenvied, uncoddled as she makes her precarious way (on “broad feet,” she reminds us) into the world.
Spanning the first sixteen years of her life, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings opens with Maya Angelou's1 arrival, at the green age of three, in dusty Stamps,...
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SOURCE: Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.” Signs 11, no. 4 (summer 1986): 621–44.
[In the following essay, Froula considers the impact of female autobiographies—such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple—on literary tradition and modern culture.]
A still, small voice has warned me again to postpone the description of hysteria.1
[Freud to Fliess, January 1, 1896]
I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her.2
[Alice Walker's Celie]
In her speech before the London/National Society for Women's Service on January 21, 1931, Virginia Woolf figured the woman novelist as a fisherwoman who lets the hook of her imagination down into the depths “of the world that lies submerged in our unconscious being.” Feeling a violent jerk, she pulls the line up short, and the “imagination comes to the top in a state of fury”:
Good heavens she cries—how dare you interfere with me. … And I—that is the reason—have to reply, “My dear you were going altogether too far. Men would be shocked.” Calm yourself. … In fifty years I shall be able to use all this very queer knowledge that you are ready to...
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SOURCE: McPherson, Dolly A. “Initiation and Self Discovery.” In Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou, pp. 21–55. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
[In the following essay, McPherson discusses I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a record of Angelou's discovery of her own interior world and identity.]
“… We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood. … I have spent over fifty years listening to my people.”
“… I think of my life and the lives of everyone who has ever lived, or will ever live, as not just journeys through time but as sacred journeys.”
—Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey
“The longest journey is the journey inwards.”
—Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
Until Maya Angelou published the first volume of her autobiography, no one could have predicted that she would achieve such popular recognition, as distinct from the esteem which many Black writers had long enjoyed as in academic and literary circles, i.e., Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden and Margaret Walker. I Know Why the Caged Bird...
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SOURCE: 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, pp. 306–16. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Moore addresses several of the major criticisms against I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, including the charge that the story is too honest and brutal for young audiences.]
I bring the dreaded disease. I encourage their children to open their hearts to the “dark” side. To know the fear in them. To know the rage. To know the repression that has lopped off their brains—
—Toi Derricotte “From The Black Notebooks”
There is, it seems, a widespread movement afoot to assert the innocence of children even as we deny or sabotage that innocence. There is what appears to be a head-in-the-sand impulse to insist upon this innocence by simply refusing to acknowledge its non-existence. Never mind the “mean streets,” never mind the high teen pregnancy rates and drug use, or the phenomenal school dropout rates, or spiraling teen suicide statistics—never mind these real dangers to childhood. There are agencies at work to shield these unprotected children from books that might reveal to them the workings of their own minds and hearts, books that engender the...
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SOURCE: Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22, no. 3 (October 1995): 91–109.
[In the following essay, Walker evaluates the political nature and influence of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]
Maya Angelou has told in interviews how Robert Loomis, her eventual Random House editor, goaded her into writing autobiography, teasing her with the challenge of writing literary autobiography. Considering herself a poet and playwright, she had repeatedly refused Loomis's requests that she write an autobiography until he told her that it was just as well: “‘He … said that to write an autobiograph—as literature—is almost impossible. I said right then I'd do it’” (“Maya Angelou,” with Hitt 211). Angelou often admits that she cannot resist a challenge; however, it was not the challenge of writing autobiography per se that Angelou could not resist (and that led to the 1970 publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but the challenge implied in Loomis's remark about the difficulty of writing autobiography “as literature.”1
Angelou does not elaborate on how she distinguishes literary autobiography from any other kind of autobiography, and of course, for a poststructuralist, the challenge to write literary rather than “ordinary”...
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SOURCE: Hagen, Lyman B. “The Autobiographies.” In Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, pp. 54–73. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Hagen traces the critical reaction to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]
The title of Angelou's first long book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), was suggested by Abbey Lincoln Roach. The appropriateness of this borrowed line is most apparent when it is considered in its original presentation. It is taken from a line in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “Sympathy.” Asked by an interviewer why does the caged bird sing, Angelou replied,
I think it was a bit of naivete or braggadoccio … to say I know why the caged bird sings! I was copying a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem so it's all right. I believe that a free bird … floats down, eats the early worm, flies away, and mates. … But the bird that's in a cage stalks up and down, looking constantly out … and he sings about freedom. Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar says,
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
when his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;...
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SOURCE: Loos, Pamela. “A Life Line.” In Overcoming Adversity: Maya Angelou, pp. 21–31. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
[In the following essay, Loos examines the implications of Marguerite's muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]
“I was liked … for just being Marguerite Johnson.”
—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970
“Into this cocoon I crept,” Maya Angelou wrote about withdrawing into muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She felt safer when she was silent, and also just by being back in Stamps. There were no tall buildings, noisy cabs and trucks, or bustling family gatherings. In Stamps, she thought, nothing ever happened, so nothing else could hurt her. And unlike her mother's relatives, people in Stamps accepted her muteness. After all, they supposed, she was only trying to adjust to being back in the South, and she had been so delicate to begin with, others agreed. No one in Stamps knew what had happened to Marguerite in St. Louis except Momma. To help her granddaughter communicate, Momma attached a tablet and pencil to a belt for Marguerite to wear.
Despite Marguerite's silence, she and Bailey received a great deal of attention in the small, poor town. They were the two little travelers who had made it to a big city up North. People would...
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Braxton, Joanne M., ed. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 162 p.
Braxton presents a collection of critical essays on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Kent, George E. “Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition.” Kansas Quarterly 7, no. 3 (summer 1975): 72–78.
Kent argues that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings occupies a unique place within the African-American autobiographical tradition.
Lupton, Mary Jane. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” In Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion, pp. 51–73. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.
Lupton explores the thematic and stylistic aspects of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990, 176 p.
McPherson examines the major thematic concerns in Angelou's autobiographical novels.
Megna-Wallace, Joanne. Understanding I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 189 p.
Megna-Wallace presents a collection of essays placing Angelou's I...
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