In “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, the caged bird is representative of both herself and those who have experienced the oppression of racism and sexism. In her autobiography, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou discusses the pre-Civil Rights oppression of black people, especially black...
In “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, the caged bird is representative of both herself and those who have experienced the oppression of racism and sexism. In her autobiography, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou discusses the pre-Civil Rights oppression of black people, especially black women, who experienced the limitations of sexism in addition to racism.
The free bird in the poem is suited to its environment to the degree that it seems to move with it in a synchronized fashion:
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
The stanza shows that the free bird is able to leap without fear because the wind will catch it in stride. The free bird is able to float because the downstream current will carry him somewhere beautiful and safe. Because his environment is synchronized to his natural movement, the free bird dares to “claim the sky” as his own. Because he is accepted by his world, he is able to thrive as part of it.
Conversely, just as Angelou was kept from thriving because of prejudices against her, so the caged bird is isolated from its environment and unable to express his natural capabilities. The caged bird's wings have been “clipped” and his feet “tied” so that he cannot even leap, much less reach new heights by riding the wind. Thus, he “stalks” about his cage, full of “rage” at his own oppression. Similarly, African Americans were not given opportunity to reach their full potential in society until after the Civil Rights movement, and there were even physical places within society that they were segregated (or caged off) from entering. Likewise, women were held back from certain career paths and educational opportunities because of sexism during Angelou's youth. She and many others with similar experiences are collectively the caged bird, and the bird is angry because it is being held back by the limitations imposed upon it by others.
His only option to fight his oppression is to sing:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The song of the caged bird is fearful because the environment without (constructs of society set in place by racist, sexist people) is against him being free. Perhaps it is because those on the exterior do not recognize the bird’s potential to thrive in the exterior environment, which is comparable to racism in that it assumes the inferiority of an entire race of people. Or perhaps those on the exterior would rather keep him in his disempowered state for their own selfish purposes, which is comparable to patriarchal men keeping women from opportunity so that they can more easily maintain positions of power in the home and workplace.
Whatever the reason for the oppression of the bird, the caged bird is so disempowered that he has no option but to sing. He must express his own song until the outside world, or someone “on the distant hill,” has recognized the song of freedom that is pent up inside the bird. Hopefully, in hearing the song of freedom, some outsiders will come to help the bird to his natural environment where he can reach his potential. Angelou, who found a voice in her writing and as a political activist, is an example of one oppressed individual who insisted on singing the truth of her existence until her potential, and the potential of many others, was recognized.