Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings figures prominently in at least three contexts: in women’s writing in general, in the literature of the American black experience, and in its significance as autobiography. After I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote four more autobiographical narratives: Gather Together in My Name (1974), which begins with Angelou as a seventeen-year-old mother of a two-month-old child; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); The Heart of a Woman (1981); and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), in which the author is thirty-three and her son seventeen. In the last book, he is about to enter the University of Ghana at Accra, and she is on her way to Liberia after nearly two years in Cairo. In All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Angelou comes full circle. It begins with her son, Guy Johnson, finally leaving the nest with which I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends. Except for a year during which Angelou toured with a dance company, they had been together from his birth. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins with the premise of historical enslavement of American blacks which has led to life in the black side of Stamps, Arkansas. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes takes Angelou back to the pre-slavery land of her ancestors.
Paralleling her autobiographical volumes are five collections of poetry: Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), And Still I Rise (1978), Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983), and Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987). In them, Angelou presents lyric moments, events, scenes, and reminiscences woven from the same cloth as her autobiographical narratives, voicing her direct, probing self-awareness as a black American woman.
As she put it in her overview of the years portrayed in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite cross fire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” That “masculine prejudice” is what makes her narrative as autobiography all the more telling. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she demands attention as an individual, thus joining the voices of other females around the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from George Sand in France to Alfonsina Storni in Argentina and from Virginia Woolf in England to Forugh Farrokhzad in Iran, who have described themselves as “caged birds,” capable of soaring if given the freedom to do so and showing clearly in their writing their ability to do so. Angelou’s autobiography joins landmark narratives by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker in both detailing irrefutable indictments of white America and demonstrating the one sort of real power which Angelou and other major black American writers have wielded with responsible and challenging vigor and craft.