What is the message of Maya Angelou's poem "Caged Bird?" 

The message of Maya Angelou's poem "Caged Bird" seems to be that any person who is oppressed or "caged" will always continue to "long" for freedom, knowing that if others are entitled to it, they should be entitled to it, too. Nothing will ever eradicate the desire to reach the "distant hill" where the free bird cavorts, such that time spent in the cage becomes a "nightmare."

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In this poem, Angelou is writing metaphorically about the plight of African Americans, as represented by the "caged bird" which sings of freedom, despite the fact that its dreams have been dashed. She compares the caged bird to the free one, which "dares to claim the sky."

The primary message...

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In this poem, Angelou is writing metaphorically about the plight of African Americans, as represented by the "caged bird" which sings of freedom, despite the fact that its dreams have been dashed. She compares the caged bird to the free one, which "dares to claim the sky."

The primary message of the poem seems to be that freedom is so obviously a natural state for a bird—or, metaphorically speaking, a person—that no amount of oppression will convince that bird to view its cage as anything other than a "nightmare." The bird which has been oppressed feels "rage" on a daily basis. He knows that his wings have been "clipped," meaning that he has been rendered unable to do the things that come naturally to him. However, he also knows that there are free birds in the world who have not been treated in this way and who have access to the "distant hill" which the caged bird still knows is there.

The oppressed people represented by the caged bird feel tied down and trapped in the cages they have been placed in by the oppressive society in which they live. Despite the fact that their dreams have been consigned to the "grave" through the efforts of free birds to stamp them out, the "trill" of the birds can never be eradicated. Even if all the caged bird has agency to do is sing, it will continue to do so, yearning for a time when it will be allowed the level of freedom it was meant to have.

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The caged bird represents the speaker's sense of being trapped as the result of racism and oppression. The poem draws the comparison between the free bird and the caged bird to show what the kind of life the caged bird is meant to live. Though the caged bird is trapped, the poem shares a message of resilience, as the bird has not yet given up.

The singing of the bird is the only act of agency he has left. There is a repetition of the lines "his feet are clipped and his wings are tied/ so he opens his throat to sing." The connection of the singing to the physical restraint is linked by the word "so" to show cause and effect. Because of the physical condition of the bird, his only recourse is to sing. This singing is not the cheerful song we imagine when we think of birds chirping in springtime. The caged bird's song comes from a place of fear and rage, as well as a longing to be free.

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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.

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