I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Essays and Criticism
by Maya Angelou

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The Fight against Racism

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Encouraged by her editor and family to remember and write about her childhood, Maya Angelou produced the first of five autobiographies and the literary work for which she is probably best known, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She acknowledges them by writing, "I thank my mother, Vivian Baxter, and my bother, Bailey Johnson, who encouraged me to remember. And a final thanks to my editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, who gently prodded me back into the lost years." Perhaps those memories have assisted her in her diverse and incredibly productive career. In addition to the autobiographies generally recognized as a sort of "never-finished canvas," Angelou has published volumes of poetry, composed musical scores, and worked as a freelance writer and editor in America and abroad. She has also written, directed, and acted on stage and screen, and recited for the world her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" for President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.

Whatever the medium or type of artistic endeavor, Angelou most often celebrates the endurance and triumph of the individual over adversity. As Angelou says, "I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive." When we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we may at first wonder how anyone could survive that childhood, but we come to realize the answers to that survival.

Of course, there are many ways to interpret this book. Some critics look for its formal literary devices such as imagery or symbols. Most recognize it as a type of bildungsroman or a "coming of age" book that traces individual, social, and intellectual development. Others take the book's organization and link that to a more personal, coming to political-social, awareness on Angelou's part. One critic, Pierre A. Walker, maintains that the structure "reveals a sequence that leads Maya progressively from helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest." In other words, Maya starts out helpless and angry about social injustices, then learns how to resist without confrontation, and finally actively and vocally protests racism and oppression.

All these interpretations make valid points, as do many others. However, Angelou herself points us to one of the most important aspects of the book. In an interview, she relates how many people come up to her and say, "I just wrote, I mean, I just read your book." Angelou understands these slips of the tongue to mean that the readers identity with her in the book, as if it were their own autobiography. In fact, if we focus on the contrasts in Caged Bird, then we see a young, black girl's coming-of-age in the America of the 1930s and 1940s that shows us what it means, or can mean, to be human.

Contrasts and opposites fill the book, and many are quite obvious. Over and over again, the girl Marguerite (Maya) compares herself to her brother Bailey. While he is handsome, quick, and glib, she refers to herself as ugly, awkward, and tongue-tied. In Stamps, Arkansas, where the children spend much of their childhood, nothing much happens except the same rounds of chores, school-work, church, and helping Momma and Uncle Willie in the Store. Maya says of this sameness, "The country had been in the throes of the Depression two years before the Negroes in Stamps knew it." The town was so segregated that the children can hardly believe that whites are real.

On the other hand, St. Louis and San Francisco teem with activities and peoples. There are bars and restaurants and music and dancing with their mother in St. Louis and the boom of wartime later in San Francisco where the streets are crowded with soldiers and workers of all nationalities. Momma may be strong and smart, but her darkness and countrified speech sometimes make Maya cringe. Grandmother Baxter, though, is "nearly white," a trained professional nurse, with a German accent. Other contrasts, however,...

(The entire section is 6,222 words.)