Maya Angelou's novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is often characterized as a work of autobiographical fiction. Angelou's novel is based on Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem Sympathy where he talks about the caged bird, a symbol for the enslaved black man/woman. In the poem, Dunbar asserts that he knows why 'the caged bird sings.'
It is not a carol of joy or glee,/ But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,/ But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— /I know why the caged bird sings!
Maya Angelou herself also wrote a poem called Caged Bird. The caged bird is a recurring symbol in her writings. In her poem, Angelou is sure that 'the caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still. Despite its helplessness to see through 'his bars of rage,' and despite its clipped wings and tied feet, the bird still sings of freedom.
Both Marguerite in The Caged Bird Sings and Melinda in Speak are victims of rape and sexual abuse. Marguerite is raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, while Melinda is raped by a classmate, Andy Evans. Both girls are so traumatized by their experiences that they are robbed of their voices and their ability to fully communicate their anguish, fear, anger, and grief.
Their shared period of silence and muteness characterizes the confusion and trauma endured by the girls. Both girls are caged, so to speak, in prisons of anxiety, depression, and fear. Such suffering is often referenced as selective mutism, an anxiety disorder affecting victims of rape and extreme physical trauma.
However, like the caged bird who learns to sing of freedom, even with a 'fearful trill,' both girls eventually find their voice. Through art and literature, they become empowered to fight back and to stand up for their rights. Melinda's own physical defense against Andy's second attack is a powerful statement of her newfound confidence. Her art is a tool of empowerment, a vehicle for both catharsis and healing. Marguerite also discovers her voice through poetry and prose; both are vehicles for her transformation from victim to empowered survivor.
Both girls exemplify the invincible spirit of the caged bird who sings of freedom over a 'grave of dreams' in the midst of' nightmare scream(s).' Despite its clipped wings and tied feet, it sings tirelessly for the freedom to hope, to thrive, and to survive despite all odds.