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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

The Work

The American Library Association repeatedly included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on its lists of the most frequently challenged books during the 1980’s and 1990’s. People for the American Way reported it as the ninth-most challenged book in American public schools. Angelou’s steamy autobiography of her early years has offended many parents and pressure groups who want the book banned from schools and libraries. They have objected to the book’s grimly graphic descriptions of child molestation, its explicit sex scenes, its coarse language, its irreverent attitude toward institutional religions, and its pervading bitterness toward Whites and the racism of the 1930’s. They have particularly objected to a key scene of an incestuous rape and to Angelou’s account of her own out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. In attacking the autobiography as indecent and religiously offensive, challengers have overlooked Angelou’s purpose: to inspire others by showing how she overcame poverty, abuse, social barriers, and low self-esteem to reach artistic success, acclaim, and a sense of personal dignity.


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.


(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

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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.

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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In a 1973 interview, Maya Angelou was referred to as a Renaissance woman. The term is apt: She is an author of nonfiction, drama, and poetry; a stage and screen performer; a nightclub singer; a dancer; a producer; an editor; a television host of documentaries and educational films; a university teacher; and a social and political activist. Surviving her childhood rape, institutionalized racism, a teenage pregnancy, and, later, prostitution, Angelou emerged as a voice in American literature and politics.

In addition to her many honorary degrees, Angelou has received numerous other awards. In 1954 and 1955, Angelou, participating in Porgy and Bess, was sponsored by the United States Department of State to tour twenty-two countries. In 1959 and 1960, Angelou was appointed Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1972, Angelou became the first Black woman to have an original script produced, and the same year, she received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971). She received a Tony nomination in 1973. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. Angelou was named Woman of the Year in 1976 by the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1977, she was named by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. Also in 1977, she received another Tony nomination, and she received the Golden Eagle award from the Public Broadcasting System for her documentary series Afro-American in the Arts. In 1982, she received a lifetime appointment as Reynold’s Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (This appointment, which lets her teach any subject in the humanities, is usually for two to five years. In an interview, Angelou remarked that her lifetime appointment “didn’t sit well with some of the white male professors.”) In 1984 and 1985, Angelou was appointed by Governor James B. Hunt to the Board of the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1992, Angelou accepted an invitation from President Bill Clinton to compose and read a poem at his inauguration.

Through these experiences, Angelou has continually reexamined her views, discarding those that she no longer accepts. For example, in her early years as a writer, Angelou called herself a “womanist” rather than a “feminist,” because she believed that feminists lacked humor. In contrast, in 1986, when an interviewer asked Angelou if she were a feminist, Angelou responded, “I am a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” When the interviewer commented that she had not always held this opinion, Angelou admitted that her views had changed. Nevertheless, Angelou often contrasts Black women’s issues and White women’s issues, believing that their positions in history and culture make their views different. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou describes several Black women: Momma, her mother, Grandmother Baxter, and Mrs. Bertha Flowers. It is not until her later books, such as The Heart of a Woman (1981), however, that Angelou begins to explore the significance of womanhood in general.

Historical Background

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The autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings spans a period of time from 1931 until 1944. The realistic portrayal of Angelou’s life is set against the Depression and World War II. Her homes, the Store, and the church which figured prominently into her life are described in great detail. Her depiction of the socially and racially divided cities and towns of St. Louis, Stamps, and California help the reader to understand life in America—from the viewpoint of a “Southern Black girl”—during this time period. Because of her firsthand knowledge of life during this time and because of her honesty in recording the settings and the events in her life, reviewers have said that she has used “the clay of real life” in her writings. (Essence, May 1992)

Historical Context

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Conflicts over Civil Rights

Although the action in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes place in the early 1930s through the late 1940s, just after World War II had finally ended, the book was published in 1970, at a time of civil unrest and protest in the nation's Black communities. The civil rights movement had splintered with the assassination of its chief architect, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968, and protest riots followed. African Americans wavered between following the pacifism that had characterized his leadership and a more outspoken form of protest that had arisen during the last years of King's life. For a time, the latter won out, driven by a climbing Black population in many of the nation's major cities. Fueled by outrage over the prejudice, poverty, crime, and unemployment that kept Black Americans living in the inner cities—in areas no Whites would live—major race riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, among many other cities, resulting in death, injury, and destruction of property. In part, such violence stemmed from a consciousness raised by the Black Power movement, which had gained prominence beginning in 1966. Its tenets overtly pitted Blacks against Whites. Oakland, California, was home to the Black Panther movement, a group of militant, armed urban youth who advocated the arming of ghetto residents against predatory and racially intolerant police officers. Predictably, these two groups of gun-bearers met head-to-head in a number of violent episodes in California cities. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War preoccupied civil rights workers in King's nonviolence camp. The conflict in southeast Asia was draining valuable financial resources away from the war on poverty within America and also drawing an inordinate number of inner-city youth to their deaths in its faraway jungles.

Black Arts Movement

The written word was a powerful tool in the struggle for African-American rights and the creation of a Black voice in national affairs. Primarily associated with writer-poet Amiri Baraka (formerly known, when he was a Beat poet, as LeRoi Jones), the Black arts movement included members who espoused the philosophy that for Black artists to indulge in empty avant-gardism or to create art that was grounded in the personal rather than the political was folly. These members of the Black arts movement held that Black artists, unlike their middle-class White counterparts, did not have the luxury of refusing to politicize their work. Some young mavericks of the movement openly criticized forerunners like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, as well as the Harlem Renaissance as a whole, for a presumed lack of social consciousness. Angelou's book came out in striking contrast to the Black arts movement, since her own personal experience never takes a back seat to the problems of society. However, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is directed at other Blacks, even though Angelou was well aware that a White audience would read it too. This idea of the Black arts movement—that Black writers must stop protesting to Whites and start educating Blacks—is one with which Angelou's autobiography is in accord.

The Not-So-New South

In the late 1960s, civil rights activists were still struggling to achieve equality in many arenas, just as they had throughout the years Angelou depicts in Caged Bird. After the Civil War, hopes ran high among Black Americans that their social, political, and economic lot in life would markedly improve. However, White Southerners employed strategies that dashed these hopes and halted the strides made toward civil rights following the war. In response to the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed that the right of citizens to vote would not be denied by any state on account of race, Southern states quickly moved to exclude Black voters on other, nonracial grounds—for example, an inability to read or to pay a poll tax. Similarly, they passed laws to establish a policy of segregation in society at large.

States could legally force Black citizens to live in separate neighborhoods and to use separate telephone booths, restrooms, drinking fountains, cemeteries—and even different Bibles on which to swear in the courtroom. This social situation prevails in Stamps, Arkansas, where Angelou grows up and where a strict color line, marked by the railroad tracks, divides the Black from the White parts of town.

Elsewhere in the United States the situation began to change by the mid-1940s, the period in which the autobiography ends. In Hansberry v. Lee (1940) the Supreme Court ruled that Blacks could not be restricted from purchasing homes in White neighborhoods. And in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) the Court ruled that segregation in interstate bus travel was unconstitutional. Yet there was also violent resistance to such change. A riot broke out, for example, after Black welders were assigned to work along with White welders in an Alabama shipyard, and White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan dedicated themselves to "punishing" Blacks for standing up for their rights. They were responsible for many mob killings, known as lynchings; in the 1940s the number of Blacks lynched in Arkansas alone since the 1880s had exceeded 200. The practice would not die out completely until the late 1960s and remained a very real threat during the period that Angelou recounts in her autobiography.

Ongoing Migration

In the early part of the century, many Blacks in the South had to scratch out a living by hiring themselves out to the White landowners as cotton-pickers. As agriculture became more mechanized, this meager source of income dried up. Many Black families migrated to northern cities, in hopes of finding jobs in the North's booming industries. The passing of nativist immigration laws in the 1920s provided added impetus to Southern Blacks in their northward migration. These new restrictions meant the virtual closing of U.S. borders to the working-class southern and eastern Europeans who had previously made up a large portion of the factory labor force in cities such as New York and Detroit. The void soon became filled by Black Americans willing to relocate hundreds of miles for the chance to become industrial workers outside the South. The decades in which Caged Bird takes place saw 458,000 Blacks leaving the South in the 1930s and 1,345,400 in the 1940s. However, many were also disappointed to find that the North was no cure for racism against Blacks. Prejudice just wore a different face.

Prohibition-Era St. Louis

The young characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are in St. Louis during the era of Prohibition (1920-33), when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States. During the time of Prohibition, speakeasies and gambling dens became the gathering places of drinkers, gamblers, and pleasure-seekers. Maya's mother undoubtedly was involved in illegal activities in the casinos where she worked. But Prohibition badly damaged U.S. society when the mob moved in and took over the liquor industry. Therefore, it is hard to criticize Maya's mother for breaking a bad law, especially since she was trying to support a family. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, although every Southern state continued to place certain restrictions on liquor—perhaps because of the influence of conservative Christian churches, which traditionally disdained alcohol. In contrast, Northern states abandoned most legislative controls.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Blacks are barred from voting in the South; although this discrimination by race is illegal, states use poll taxes and other laws to restrict voting rights.

1970: After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968, racial discrimination is banned from housing, public places, and the voting booth. African Americans begin to successfully run for political office in greater numbers.

Today: Blacks are entitled to vote all over the United States, many cities in both North and South have Black mayors, and many Black men and women serve in both the U.S. House and Senate.

1930s: Schools are segregated and unequal, and Blacks are blocked from living in White neighborhoods all over the U.S.

1970: School segregation is illegal, and some courts have even ordered busing to enforce desegregation of schools.

Today: Enforced desegregation has been successfully challenged in the courts. School segregation and housing discrimination is illegal but persists anyway, as economic factors often split populations into racially divided neighborhoods.

1930s: During the Depression, there are limited job opportunities for African Americans, who face overt prejudice in both the South and North.

1970: Affirmative Action programs begin to be enacted to offer minorities, including women and Blacks, greater access to jobs and education.

Today: Civil Rights Laws protect the employment rights of Blacks and other minorities, although affirmative action programs are themselves being challenged as discriminatory.

1930s: Lynching—a form of vigilante "justice" in which White mobs torture and murder Blacks—often goes unpunished.

1970: Lynching is prosecuted as murder, and is seen less and less, even in the South.

Today: Racial attacks by mobs on individuals are very rare, although individual crimes are often motivated by racial hatred. Race-related violence is often prosecuted as a separate crime.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading