What are themes depicted in Maya Angelou's poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The free bird leaps
on the back of the win
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.


The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and is tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The two most prominent themes are those of (1) freedom versus oppression and (2) duality. Angelou starts her poem (which bears the same title as her first autobiographical book) with a contrast between the free bird that "leaps / on the back of the win [wind]" and the captive bird that "sings / with a fearful trill." The one feels freedom and metaphorically "dares to claim the sky." The other is oppressed by "his bars of rage." This one feels "his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied." Thus Angelou sets up the contrasting theme of freedom versus oppression while simultaneously also establishing a binary opposition relevant to the theme.

Duality is apparent all throughout. The first, most apparent duality is between freedom and oppression. The next obvious one (though easy to overlook) is the duality of the caged bird and the free bird. Another significant duality is between the songs. One bird has celebration and opportunity, thus there is no mention of that bird's song, only of his wings as they dip and "claim the sky" while the other sings for rage; for longing; for freedom; from desperation. [Though Angelou asserts the feelings of rage and longing for the bird, this is to be considered metaphorically as there is no evidence that all caged real birds feel rage (there would be a lot more injured fingers in that case).]