Angelou’s poem uses metaphor and juxtaposition to express the idea that freedom is a natural state and knowledge of this fact cannot be undone by any amount of oppression, imprisonment or limitation of opportunity. Oppressed people suffer psychologically and emotionally, the poem suggests, but never lose sight of the inverse of that suffering.
In the poem, the free bird has power and “names the sky his own” while acting on inborn impulses to fly and float on the sky. The language and imagery surrounding the free bird is soft and also indicative of authority, innate rights and self-ownership.
Contrasted to the free bird, the caged bird is associated with darkness, pain, and fear. Reduced to an unnatural and lesser version of itself than the free bird, the caged bird cannot fly yet retains the desire to be free and to find self-expression (and, also, to claim self-ownership).
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The message of the poem then is largely related to the emotional and psychological effects of being oppressed and removed from the possibility of self-determination. The means of oppression and delimitation are only given metaphorical explanation in the poem and are not connected to social or political realities outside of the poem. But the deeply felt difference between being powerfully free or being oppressed and caged is expressed in ways that closely mimic a more racially explicit stanza from Langston Hughes’ poem, “I look at the world.”
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
In “Caged Bird” Angelou deals with a very similar sense of limitation, separation and marginalization through the metaphor of the bird in a cage. Importantly, her poem suggests that the desire to be free will always be expressed, despite circumstances that might quell the spirit. There is an innate understanding of what it means to be alive that translates into a demand or an unquenchable impulse to see oneself in an open sky of one’s own.