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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Discuss racism and color discrimination in the poem "Caged Bird."

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In her poem "Caged Bird," Maya Angelou juxtaposes two metaphorical birds to communicate themes of racism and color discrimination. She contrasts a playful, carefree description of the free bird with a dark, oppressive description of the caged bird, demonstrating the disparity between the treatment of white and black communities and the opportunities they have access to.

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In her poem "Caged Bird," Maya Angelou communicates themes of racism and color discrimination through the juxtaposition of two metaphorical birds: one free and one caged.

The free bird represents the white community. The free bird is able to fly and live as it pleases with few, if any, limitations. Many white people are similarly able to enjoy freedom, as they are not subjected to the same confinements, prejudices, and discrimination that minority groups are exposed to on a regular basis. The free bird "dares to claim the sky" and "names the sky his own." The sky represents the privileges and opportunities available to white people that are too often inaccessible to minorities.

While the free bird soars through the open sky, the caged bird is imprisoned. The caged bird is a metaphor for the Black community. Angelou describes the life of the captive bird:

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The language used to describe the free bird's life and surroundings is a stark contrast to the description the caged bird. The free bird "leaps" and "floats," "dips" and "dares." The use of these playful verbs illustrates the carefree, uninhibited life of the free bird. In constrast, the caged bird is described using dark, oppressive language. It has clipped wings and tied feet; it cannot see beyond the bars of its cage; and it "stands on the grave of dreams."

The free bird's environment is open and vast. The bird can see the sun and sky. It can fly above the trees and streams. The caged bird lives in a small, confined space. Its cage is narrow and the cage's bars prevent the bird from leaving. The caged bird's clipped wings, bound feet, and barred cage represent the oppression of the black community. The caged bird is not free to enjoy the same privileges and opportunities as the free bird, just as the black community is denied access to privileges and opportunities that are available to the white community.

Through the juxtaposition of the free bird and caged bird and her careful choice of words, Angelou calls attention to the differences in treatment and opportunity of the white community and the black community.

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