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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. An excellent collection of interviews with Angelou, arranged chronologically from 1971 to 1988. Contains a useful introduction, a chronology, and an index, as well as photographs of Angelou.

Angelou, Maya. Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974. This book, a combination of fiction and nonfiction, begins with a dedication both to Angelou’s “blood brother” Bailey and to a group of “real brothers.” A continuation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it explores Angelou’s struggles as a single parent and provider.

Angelou, Maya. The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House, 1981. This autobiography, which begins with a dedication to a group of women that Angelou calls “Sister/friends,” covers Angelou’s early mature years as a writer. In it, she explores her creativity and her success.

Angelou, Maya. “An Interview with Maya Angelou.” The Massachusetts Review 28 (Spring, 87): 286-292. Remarks on the art of autobiography, including the narrative voice, the selectivity of memory, and the effects of the writing process.

Angelou, Maya. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. New York: Random House, 1976. The autobiography covers the time of Angelou’s stage debut through her international tour with Porgy and Bess.

Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Language Association Journal 20 (1976): 273-291. Asserts that Angelou’s narrative of her girlhood is empowered by tension between quest for a life-affirming identity and obsession with annihilation. In order to adapt to the early threat of breakdown of identity, she developed a self-defense of mutability, of which the pervasive metaphor is death. The birth of her son brings about Maya’s psychological rebirth into a woman who can trust herself to be life-giving, nourishing, and protecting.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Argues that Angelou uses the child’s vision as principle of selection and the protecting mother as primary archetype, bringing to fruition certain themes of Black female autobiography: the importance of family and of rearing one’s children, resistance to a hostile environment, sympathy, and self-definition.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “The Metamorphosis of Matrilinearism in Women’s Autobiography.” In Women’s Autobiography, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of four modern women’s autobiographies analyzed.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Myth and History: Discourse of Origins in Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 221-235. Discusses plot and themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings along with Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

Graham, Joyce. “Making Language Sing: An Interview with Maya Angelou.” Journal of Reading 34 (February, 1991): 406-410. Angelou discusses her technique writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and what she tried to achieve artistically.

Kent, George E. “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition.” Kansas Quarterly 7, no. 3 (1975): 72-78. Kent asserts that Angelou presents an emerging self equipped with an imagination that can successfully engage intransigent institutions, perceive both the beauty and absurdity of life in Black communities, and create its own coherence.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer, 1990): 257-276. Shows how Angelou achieves continuity from one autobiographical volume to the next. Analyzes her autobiographical series with particular emphasis on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the theme of motherhood.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Mother Wit: Humor in African-American Women’s Autobiography.” Studies in American Humor 4 (Spring/Summer, 1985): 51-61. Notes that empowerment through the acquisition of language and the development of verbal humor is a unifying theme in Angelou’s autobiography.

McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird.” South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (1976): 106-111. Angelou shows that individuals and groups can artistically humanize static, institutionalized roles to facilitate inter-relationship and affirm self.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Examines the organization of Angelou’s autobiographical works around certain recurring themes. An addendum contains an insightful and illuminating interview with Angelou that throws new light on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Moore, Opal. “Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Shuker, Nancy. Maya Angelou. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

Spain, Valerie. Meet Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.

Tate, Claudia. “Maya Angelou.” In Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Angelou talks of the special need of Black American women to make images of themselves and to have positive role models. Also discusses her responsibility as a writer and her writing process.

Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22 (1995): 91-108.

Washington, Carla. “Maya Angelou’s Angelic Aura.” The Christian Century 105 (November 16, 1988): 1031-1032. Proposes that Angelou’s work, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has a quality of spirituality. Focuses on the religious events and spiritual concerns of the novel.


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The television version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was presented in 1979 by CBS as its Saturday Night Movie. In collaboration with Leonora Thuna, Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay. The direction was by Fielder Cook.

The television adaptation focuses on the tone of the story—the pathos of the situation of the Black community in the Depression-era South—instead of dramatic suspense to advance the plot of the story.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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“A Wake-up Call from a Poet,” U.S. News and World Report, February 1, 1993, p. 6–7.

“The Essence Award Winners,” Essence, May 1992, p. 68.

Suzette A. Henke, "Women's Life-Writing and the Minority Voice: Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Alice Walker," in Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 210-33.

George Kent, "Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition," in African American Autobiography. A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1993, pp. 162-70.

Gillespie, Marcia Ann, “Maya Angelou in Living,” Essence, December 1992, pp. 49–52, 120.

Lambert, Walter J. and Charles E. Lamb, Reading Instruction in the Content Areas. Chicago: Rand McNally Publishing Company, 1980.

Myra K. McMurry, "Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird," in South Atlantic Bulletin, No. 2, May, 1976, pp. 106-11.

Opal Moore, "Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karohdes, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds., 1993, pp. 306-16.

Moritz, Charles (editor). Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1974.

Sidonie Ann Smith, "The Song of a Caged Bird. Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance," in The Southern Humanities Review, Fall, 1973, pp 365-75.

For Further Study

James Bertohno, "Maya Angelou Is Three Writers. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by N. J. Karohdes, L. Burgess, and J. M. Kean, The Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 299-305. Bertohno views Angelou as a gifted shaper of words and literary devices, an intensely honest person, and an important social commentator.

Jeffrey M. Elliot, editor, Conversations with Maya Angelou, University of Mississippi Press, 1989.

An insightful collection of reprinted interviews with Angelou.

Onita Estes-Hicks, "The Way We Were: Precious Memories of the Black Segregated South," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 9-18. Estes-Hicks places Angelou's autobiography within the tradition of Black Southern autobiographies by comparing and contrasting with other writers.

Mary Jane Lupton, "Singing the Black Mother. Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 257-76.

Discusses the unifying theme of motherhood in Angelou's autobiographies.

Carol E. Neubauer, "Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition," in Southern Women Writers. The New Generation, edited by T. Bond Inge, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 114-42. Summarizes Angelou's career and discusses recurring themes in her poetry, including "Caged Bird."

Sondra O'Neale, "Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980). A Critical Evaluation, edited by M. Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 25-37. O'Neale discusses Angelou's racial identification and how she subverts stereotypical ideas of the Black Woman.

Mary Vermillion, "Reembodying the Self: Representations of Rape in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in Biography, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 243-60. Vermilhon gives a sensitive and perceptive discussion of the rape and its connection to a larger theme of oppression in the autobiography.

Pierre A. Walker, "Racial Protest, Identity, Words, and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in College Literature, Vol. 222, Oct. 1995, pp. 91-108. Walker focuses on the literary qualities to assert the autobiography traces the steps of the author's political self from racial helplessness to active protest.

Media Adaptations

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a TV movie in 1979 starring Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosely, Paul Benjamin, and Constance Good, directed by Fielder Cook. Available from Knowledge Unlimited, Inc.

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Historical and Social Context