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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Masterplots II: African American Literature I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis

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Angelou’s title alludes to the poem “Sympathy” by the African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, in which a bird hurls itself repeatedly against the bars of its cage even as it sings its longing for freedom. The poem’s title implies that Dunbar himself understands the bird since he too felt trapped by the success of his dialect poems. Angelou’s title, a line repeated in the poem, establishes her tone of compassionate protest and provides her central theme and metaphor. It leads prospective readers to wonder what such an unnatural life as that of an imprisoned bird would be like for humans, what forms such a “cage” might take in human life, how such a life could produce song, whether freedom would be possible, and what Angelou can tell, from her experience and sympathetic imagination, about the answers to these questions.

Angelou identifies the bars of the “cage” as racism, sexism, and the powerlessness of their victims, whose disabling responses of “fear, guilt, and self-revulsion” merely become additional bars. Whole communities and classes of humans are thus restricted from being fully themselves. Angelou shows how this imprisonment, exactly because it is so unnatural, also naturally produces the response of “song,” in the form of struggle, survival, self-affirmation, and at last freedom.

Like Dunbar, Angelou suggests that, by nature, humans are freely expressive. However, she illustrates many restrictions that are placed on expressive selfhood by acts of injustice committed because of self-centeredness and prejudice. When these injustices are experienced during childhood, Angelou explains, persons internalize patterns of understanding that may last for life. For example, because African Americans in Stamps were “people whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction,” they lived lives of resignation (with occasional exceptions such as revival meetings, where the theme would be God’s system of justice). Angelou remarks on her own tendency, even as an adult, to feel rage, paranoia, and dread of futility.

Using herself as illustration, Angelou shows how resignation and rage are produced by all-encompassing racist oppression, by omnipresent sexist stereotyping that diminishes the value of any female who does not meet its standards of feminine beauty, and by neglect or violence within families. Describing her sense of temporariness and homelessness (felt even in church, where the congregation often expressed the same feelings about themselves in this world), Angelou tells of having fantasized that her beauty in a white woman’s throwaway dress would evoke understanding and appreciation of her worth, thereby awakening her from her “black ugly dream”; instead, she experienced only frustration, humiliation, and fear that she would die. Her early chapters suggest the fairy tale of the ugly duckling; and although it seems that Maya intuited that she was a swan, she nevertheless suffered a crippling loss of self-esteem. Her frequent suspicions that she might be a changeling made her so emotively vulnerable that, for example, she at first thought that a sexual abuser might be her real father, because his attentions gave her a sense of having a real home. Though her dream became a nightmare, again she was misplaced and displaced, and again she was imprisoned in misunderstanding, fear of death, and guilt-ridden silence. Throughout her childhood, Angelou blamed herself for life’s injustices.

If Angelou’s girlhood odyssey through deathlike psychological depths took her into an underworld (sometimes literal as well as figurative) of race, gender, and family disempowerment, it was in these same areas that she was empowered to seek self-affirmation. The black community of Stamps, although oppressed, gave her a rich culture of language, story, song, religious vision, and faith and brought her together with individuals whose unselfishness and wisdom ensured her survival and growth. Although she was damaged by family experiences of abandonment, neglect, and violence, her family life with Momma, Uncle Willie, and Bailey in Stamps and with her mother in San Francisco also provided the love that sustained her quest. Although her mother and grandmothers sometimes acted in ways that reinforced Maya’s confusion and ambivalence toward life, these same women, and Bertha Flowers, provided not only daily support but also the role models of competent and effective womanhood that Angelou celebrated in her book and emulated in her life.

Angelou’s effectiveness as a writer is based on her ability to tell stories well. The story of her girlhood is composed of many vignettes; her memory when writing them was so vivid and complete that she fills her reader’s imagination with sensory details, images, character sketches, poignant remarks, revealing conversations, typical gatherings and goings-on, and many people’s points of view (especially Bailey’s, with its special relation to her own). Meanwhile, readers may gather meaning from the double perspective of the child whose immediate survival is at stake and the adult who can interpret and evaluate with compassion, moral outrage, self-criticism, or humor because of her greater safety as well as greater wisdom. Because the adult’s viewpoint dominates, Angelou’s artistry graces her telling with a lyrical style that often transforms her prose into a song—whether sorrow song or praise song—of her faith in the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

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