I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis
by Maya Angelou

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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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)