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...
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