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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis

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In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou brings to life her experiences in mid-twentieth century United States. To most young readers, her experiences will seem harsh: She was sent away by her parents at the age of three, strictly reared by her paternal grandmother, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, injured by her father’s girlfriend in a fight, hid in a junkyard for a month, and gave birth to a child while she was unmarried and still a teenager herself. If the book contained only this sort of harshness, then young readers would come away with nothing more than a deep grief over the injustices of racism, of adult irresponsibility, and of poverty. Such is not the case.

Angelou’s eloquent autobiography is a testimony to the human spirit, to her personal resilience, and to the power of African-American people. These affirmations are woven through the chapters but are sharply visible in her account of her eighth-grade graduation in Stamps, Arkansas, in 1940. (This sketch is often included in anthologies of essays under the title “Graduation.”) In this narrative, Angelou sets the scene with a description of the excitement surrounding eighth-grade graduation: Momma made her a butter-yellow piqué dress, with crocheted cuffs and a pointy crocheted collar; Uncle Willie and Momma closed the Store; the school band played; and the school principal spoke. Not until the heart of the graduation ceremony did the festive mood change. Then, the white speaker, Edward Donleavy, came on stage with another white man trailing after him. The uninvited guest displaced the Baptist minister, who had to leave the stage.

Donleavy’s speech disheartened the audience. They saw themselves through his eyes: “We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.” Angelou concludes that the “ugliness they left was palpable,” and she thinks about colors she hates: “ecru, puce, lavender, beige and black.” As Henry Reed began his valedictory address, he futilely tried to rekindle the spirit of graduation. Finally, in an unrehearsed impulse, he turned to the audience and led them in the singing of the African-American national anthem—“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson.

In the joy of the anthem, Angelou rediscovered the beauty of her race. She writes, “I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” With the power of this realization, in Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, her voice becomes one of the strong voices in the “Black is Beautiful” movement. It is this Angelou who emerged from this experience who went on to become the first African American hired to work on San Francisco streetcars and to become a writer, actor, director, speaker, and activist for human rights. Her autobiography lets readers travel to that adulthood with her.

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