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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Who or what is Maya's first love in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

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Maya identifies her first love as William Shakespeare and his written works. As a girl, she reads every single book in the small library in Stamps, Arkansas. In chapter 2, she explains why the playwright's words resonate with her:

It was Shakespeare who said, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 conveys a depressed speaker, one who has experienced bad luck and is perceived negatively by the public. The words strongly relate to Maya’s childhood in Stamps, where she grows up impoverished and subject to fierce racism. She had the misfortune of being born into a world in which her race is looked down upon.

The words resonate so deeply with Maya that she initially thinks that the author of Sonnet 29 was a black girl; refer to the Atlantic article (linked below) in which Angelou goes into greater detail regarding this impression. Maya finds companionship in Shakespeare’s written works, as though they were written expressly for her and the pain she experiences as a girl.

When Maya learns that Shakespeare was in fact a white man, it does not matter to her, as he has been dead for three hundred years. However, she knows her mother will not share this view. Maya and Bailey initially want to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice before deciding it would be more suitable to choose one from The Creation by James Weldon Johnson, who is a civil rights activist.

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Maya's first love was not a boy from the neighborhood, and she could never even hope for him to return that love. Her first love was William Shakespeare. She explains her love in chapter 2:

During those years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love...it was Shakespeare who said, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." It was a state of mind with which I found myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more. 
 

Having been moved seven times in her young life, she needed some sense of stability, and she found that in reading. The library becomes her refuge where she can escape her world for the world of fantasy. As a child, she often quotes from the books she has read.

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