Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
When at age forty, in response to the urging of literary friends, Maya Angelou wrote the story of her girlhood, she had achieved an international reputation as a singer, dancer, actor, journalist, civil rights activist, and lecturer. Her readers would know that they were reading about a girl who had triumphed, but only Angelou knew that the victory had been won against great odds.
As an artist, she knew that she was joining a long line of African American women and men who had written within a major literary tradition of American autobiography, and an even longer line of anonymous black bards and storytellers within the oral tradition, whose poems and stories were becoming known by contemporary readers because of the interest in African American history and culture that had been generated by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Contemporary black authors also were being widely read as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Arts movement. Writing by African American women was still comparatively neglected, but by 1970, the women’s movement was generating interest in women’s lives and art generally.
It is not surprising, then, that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was quickly discovered by the public and by reviewers. Angelou’s very readable story has continued to move and enlighten readers because she has explained the struggle, offered hope of victory, and affirmed the dignity of individuals who live by a multiplicity of identity roles simultaneously.
As the historical conditions of black American life have become generally known, scholars studying Angelou’s autobiography have turned their attention to the psychological dimensions of the life that she has recorded and to the artistic devices by which she presents them. The resulting understanding of her story has revealed an even more complex and more deeply human struggle and triumph than was seen by early readers, and this understanding has further enhanced her effectiveness as an artist, educator, and role model.