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.