Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial

Discuss the significance of the title "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in the context of the entire poem.

The title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes from the poem “Sympathy” by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the poem, he depicts a bird in a cage that sings a prayer in the hope that it will be freed. Young Maya Angelou feels herself to be a caged bird as she struggles for her own freedom in the face of a number of major obstacles.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Maya Angelou's famous poem "Caged Bird," she contrasts the life of a free, independent bird with that of an oppressed and manacled caged bird. The title corresponds to the life of the imprisoned bird, whose wings have been clipped and feet have been tied to prevent it from living a fulfilling life. The caged bird symbolically represents the plight of marginalized, mistreated African Americans, who suffer from racial discrimination, injustice, and oppression in the United States. Despite the oppressed life of the caged bird, the bird demonstrates its resolve and courage in the face of adversity by singing at the top of its lungs. The caged bird's tune is described as being "fearful," and Maya writes that he "shouts on a nightmare scream." However, the caged bird's song of freedom is heard on the "distant hill" and is the bird's way of expressing its difficult emotions. Notably, the caged bird's harsh environment does not affect its integrity, and the confined bird transcends its unfortunate situation by singing. Maya is metaphorically illustrating how oppressed African Americans exercise their creativity and rely on their inner strength to alleviate their suffering while simultaneously preserving hope for a better future.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Maya Angelou wrote an autobiographical book entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsThe title of the poem you are referring to is “Caged Bird.”

The title of the poem, “Caged Bird” is significant because the poem compares the lives of the bird who lives freely, and the one who is confined to a cage. Both birds are symbolic of the groups of people they represent.

The free bird is able to make choices based on a whim while the caged bird has to eke out an existence. The free bird represents those people and races who are free to live life unencumbered by the chains of racism and oppression. The caged bird is shackled and imprisoned by society, but it chooses to overcome those obstacles by singing. In choosing the title, “Caged Bird,” Angelou puts the focus on the tenacity and perseverance of those who are victims of bias and racism. Instead of allowing the “cage” to break their spirit, they chose to rise above their obstacles.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings mean?

The title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is taken from a poem called “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American poet who lived and worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the poem, a little bird constantly throws himself against the bars of his cage in a forlorn attempt at escape. Eventually, the bird sings a prayer to heaven, hoping to be free.

Maya Angelou clearly identifies with the little bird, which is why the refrain from Dunbar's poem is so singularly appropriate to her story, especially in the early part of her life. For during this period, Maya too felt very much like a caged bird as she struggled to achieve freedom in the face of a number of challenges in her life. As well as poverty, abuse, and racism, Maya also had to experience sexism when she finally ventured out into the world.

Wherever she's gone and whatever she's done, Maya has always encountered such obstacles. Nevertheless, she's continued to write and tell her story despite all the many hardships that she has endured. This is her equivalent of the little bird in Dunbar's poem singing to heaven; it is her means of achieving some measure of freedom in her life.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on