Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial

What is the purpose, tone, meaning, and message of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou?

The purpose of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is to make sense of what has happened to her and to provide hope for other survivors. The tone of this book is conversational, down to earth, and easy to read. The meaning of this powerful autobiography is that one should never lose hope. Its message is that you should always persevere.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would say that the purpose of this great autobiography is two-fold. Firstly, it allows Marguerite Johnson, later known as Maya Angelou, to make sense of the breathtaking series of events which characterizes her young life. Maya endures remarkable trauma in these early years, from being raped to ending up living in a junkyard and later triumphing when she becomes the first black person to be employed by the San Francisco streetcars. Secondly, the purpose of this autobiography is to provide a sense of solidarity for other survivors of rape, racism, and homelessness.

In writing her powerful autobiography, Maya Angelou adopts a tone that is best described as down to earth, conversational, and easy to read. This makes the serious passages far easier to read and relate to than they may otherwise have been.

I would argue that the meaning of this book is that there is hope in all situations and that positive change may not be as far away as one might think. In my mind, this message is most powerfully driven home when Marguerite becomes the first black employee on San Francisco's streetcars. It would have once appeared impossible for a black person to secure employment here, but through her tenacity and hope of a better future, Marguerite overcame the odds.

Tied to this, the message of this great autobiography is to never give up, no matter what life throws at you. The metaphorical caged bird never stops singing, even in the face of the wide range of atrocities that Maya Angelou faced during her formative years.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou presents a message of hope. Its purpose is two-fold. By writing the autobiographical narrative in the style of a fictional novel, Angelou writes a story that others can relate to, and is able to give a voice, not only to herself, but to others who suffer atrocities while growing up, and who face endemic racial prejudice.

Angelou chronicles the trials and tribulations of her life from early childhood through her adolescence when she takes on adult roles. Using her unique style of writing, she takes the reader from her early childhood to her late teen years.

When she is a toddler her mother sent her, along with her brother, to live with her grandmother, who is an exemplary role model. It is through her that Marguerite grows to value education, to see the abilities of a strong, influential Black woman, and to examine the human condition of segregation. Although she is young, she presents a thoughtful, introspective tone at this time of her life.

When she is a young, impressionable girl, she and her brother are sent back to her mother’s family. The novel’s tone changes as this is a dark period of abuse, racism, and neglect for the children and the family. During this portion of her life, Marguerite suffers greatly, and chooses to stop speaking for a time.

Ms. Angelou changes the mood of the story a number of times as the young Marguerite experiences abuse, racism and segregation. Yet, when she moves to California to be with her mother, she thrives and prospers in her education, which includes the arts which she is so fond of. She experiences life within a homeless community that includes many races, she fights to become the first Black female streetcar driver, and finally, she becomes a mother.

The young girl in the story embodies Ms. Angelou’s metaphor of the caged bird that never gives up its song. Her life is filled with contradictions, atrocities, and oppression, which take away her voice for a time, until she is coaxed out of her “cage” and finds her voice again. She uses that voice to “sing” for herself and for others who have suffered. Her story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Maya Angelou wrote her autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an attempt to expose the discrimination that pervades society. It is also Angelou's way of coping with the distress and trauma associated with her life in a racially divided, male-dominated community which resulted in her, and many others, suffering as innocent victims of abuse. 

Due to a developing self-awareness and an intuition that saves her from being overwhelmed by her circumstances, the young Marguerite (Angelou's original name) or "Ritie," overcomes all her obstacles and, with positive female role-models, she matures into a confident, determined and accomplished adult. Education is very important to her and, upon her graduation, Marguerite comes to a realization that, "I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race." 

There is a light-hearted, self-deprecating and very down-to-earth tone to the book which defies the serious and sometimes demoralizing content and which ensures that the reader is not overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding Marguerite. Angelou's use of a title which came from a poem, Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American poet, who inspired her writing, helps the reader to come to terms with the restrictive, bigoted and unjust society from which people like Angelou manage to emerge as stronger, more resilient people with a huge contribution to make to society. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would propose that the entire purpose and meaning of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can be summed up in one word: Resilience. The life of Maya Angelou makes a stunning progression from darkness to light, and from silence to speech. She finds out what she is truly made of through trials and is refined into a person of intense character and stamina. The tone moves from darker and repressed (in the beginning) to expressive and strong in the final chapters (and in her adulthood). The message the reader can take from this book is: The pain from trials and growth into adulthood can be used for our good, and resilience shapes amazing character in people that are willing to persist as survivors.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team