I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In this first of five volumes of autobiography, Maya Angelou tells the story of her life from age three, when her divorcing parents sent her and her brother to live with their maternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, to age sixteen, when, reunited with her mother in San Francisco, she gave birth to her son. Thus her story begins with semi-orphanhood and ends with motherhood. Interpreting her quest for freedom and self-affirmation as representative of that of many African Americans and American women—especially black American women—she presents incidents from her life that illustrate conditions faced by many persons. In her case, these conditions result, after much struggle, in a moment and message of hope.

Angelou begins her narrative with a painful incident that she does not date but that seems appropriate to age six or seven. In a church recitation, Maya cannot bring herself to remember the lines of an Easter poem beyond the first two, which seem to her to express her constant state of temporariness as a displaced orphan and humiliated outcast. Her dream of being beautiful, understood, and accepted—all of which she has imagined in terms of being white—is shattered, and her mind is occupied with thoughts of persecution, impending death, and imperative self-restraint. She feels about to burst; her means of release, the socially unacceptable one of urinating in her pants, merely reinforces her predicament.

After this introduction, Angelou turns to her arrival in Stamps at age three and proceeds by chronicling her emotional development, with reflection upon the implications of her experiences for understanding racism, sexism, and the general human condition. Her story is divided into four parts that take place in three settings: in Stamps with her grandmother (whom she called “Momma”) and Uncle Willie, from age three through seven; in St. Louis with her mother and her mother’s parents, brothers, and boyfriend, while she was eight; back in Stamps from age nine to thirteen; and in California with her mother, to age sixteen. Her brother was her constant companion during all but the last year.

The Johnsons in Stamps and the Baxters in St. Louis were relatively well-off black families, featuring strong and influential women. In Stamps, Momma owned properties that she rented to poor whites and owned and operated the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, which served as a lay center for the black community. Her family attended the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The sensitive, curious, and thoughtful Maya was in a position to observe a wide range of black experiences, roles, character types, and patterns of expression. She tells, for example, of bone-weary cotton pickers caught in economic enslavement within the general impoverishment of African Americans; a threat to Uncle Willie’s life by the Ku Klux Klan; the complete segregation in Stamps, with its resulting ignorance and prejudice on the part of both whites and African Americans; a...

(The entire section is 8,224 words.)