Explain the imprisonment of the birds in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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For this book—the first volume of her autobiography series—Maya Angelou takes the title from lines in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem "Sympathy." In addition, Angelou wrote a poem titled “Caged Bird,” which uses some of the same themes as Dunbar’s poems. The themes of imprisonment and freedom clearly dominate both poems, and they can be seen in Angelou's book as well.

In Dunbar’s poem, “the caged bird beats his wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars” and has done so repeatedly in the past, for “a pain still throbs in the old, old scars.” Still, he continues to beat his wing despite the pain: “When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— / When he beats his bars and he would be free . . . ” The contrast throughout the poem, between the physical pain and the emotional and mental pain, emphasizes the motif of yearning for freedom. In Dunbar’s poem, the bird’s song is a prayer for that freedom.

In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou takes the freedom motif and expands on it. Stanzas about the caged bird alternate with stanzas about a free bird. The physical pain and scars are not explicit.

Angelou’s allusion to both these poems in her autobiography relates thematically to voice and to her personal sense of imprisonment caused by trauma. In the book, she explains that when she was eight years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her, and she spoke out against him by testifying at his trial. After he was later killed, she connected her testimony to his death and stopped speaking. Her mute state lasted for five years, and it was poetry that finally ended it. A family friend suggested that she read poetry aloud, and through doing so, she recovered her voice—and strengthened it as a writer.

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The image of the caged bird in the title is an allusion to a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem entitled "Sympathy."  In this poem, the bird beats its wings against the bars of its cage to no avail and then sings from its heart.  The cage is, of course, a reference to the institutional social and personal oppression that African-Americans suffered during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century.  The bird's song represents the desire to be free from these constrictions.  In the autobiography itself, there are no real references to imprisoned birds apart from this allusion.  However, Angelou's use of this allusion is intended to draw a parallel between the poem's theme and her early childhood experiences as a poor African-American female living in the South during the 1930s and 1940s.  Her "cage" is made of issues arising from class, race, and gender--all of which prevent her from the truest expression of her sense of self.  Her autobiography attempts to chart her growth into an assured young woman who breaks free from these restrictions.

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