Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is full of insights into the American rural black community in the 1930’s and its worldview. For white readers, the insights are revelations often surprising and discomfiting, while black readers can see them as an exhilarating, poignant, and unprecedented sharing of community memories and experiences. Angelou reveals childhood dreams of waking up white, childhood envy of girls with “good” hair—“more straight than kinky”—lifelong paranoia about white people and their world, and the pervasiveness of racism in American life. Readers come gradually to share Maya’s sense of pride in the everyday achievements of her mother, Momma, Bailey, Sr., Uncle Willie, Bailey, Jr., and other blacks weighted down with disadvantages. Nevertheless, readers may wonder how reasonable Maya’s hopes are at the end of the book, as she, an unwed, teenage mother with no money or demonstrated talents or skills, begins to face the world on her own. Yet even without reading her later books or knowing the details of her remarkably productive and rich life, readers can guess from Angelou’s writing that many of her hopes were attainable.
Angelou brings a rich and varied vocabulary, a feeling for the rhythms of speech, and a fertile imagination to bear on the slightest recollection from childhood. Her use of metaphor and simile, which almost invariably communicates the richness of her family and community environment and the black American culture of which they were part, is especially engaging. She recalls “molasses-slow minutes” and “laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking stove.” At a summer picnic, “chickens and spareribs sputtered in their own fat and a sauce whose recipe was guarded in the family like a scandalous affair.” The harmony of a gospel group rehearsing was “packed as tight as sardines.” At one point during her eighth-grade graduation exercises, “Amens and Yes, sir’s began to fall around the room like rain through a ragged umbrella.” Later, when Angelou was pregnant, her mother “was tied up tighter than Dick’s hatband in the weave of her own life.”
Nevertheless, Angelou’s control of imagery and metaphor does not make merely for stylish writing. They create drama and force in her commentary on her life. Of her own rape, she says, “The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.” She also notes the pains of being black and female in the South: “The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons, and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.” The black man’s fate is no better. Of her father Angelou observes: “He was a lonely person searching relentlessly in bottles, under women’s skirts, in church work and lofty titles for his ‘personal niche,’ lost before birth and unrecovered since.”
Ultimately, Angelou’s candor and honesty can fascinate or unnerve the reader. She finds meaning and special value in unvarnished recollections of difficult times and imperfect people. She loves her people and cherishes her past with them both because of and in spite of what they were. She can do this because she possesses an inner strength that the reader comes to recognize is the result of her special heritage as a black American woman.