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

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beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

msray eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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