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Last Updated on November 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

So you’re going to teach I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Angelou's memoir has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it has its challenging spots—depictions of racism and sexual abuse, and a complex, poetic prose style—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Caged Bird will give them insight into Angelou’s coming-of-age journey to independence and motherhood, and important themes surrounding racism, literacy, and trauma. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1969
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9th and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 82,000
  • Author: Maya Angelou
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Literary Period: Mid-century American
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person
  • Narration: First-Person
  • Setting: Arkansas, Missouri, and California; 1930s and 40s
  • Structure: Prose Memoir
  • Mood: Candid, Empathetic


Texts that Go Well with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), by James Baldwin, is a semiautobiographical novel that explores a young man’s struggles with his stepfather and his Pentecostal faith. It is set in Harlem during the 1930s. James Baldwin was a mentor and friend to Angelou, and he encouraged her to write her own memoir.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee, explores race and justice in the Depression-era South through the perspective of Scout, a young white girl. The novel pairs well with Caged Bird in that both books confront the subject of racism in the American South during the early twentieth century.

The Learning Tree (1963), by Gordon Parks, is a semiautobiographical novel set in rural Kansas in the early twentieth century. A coming-of-age novel, it explores the subjects of sexuality and racism through the main character Newt’s experiences as he matures. The Learning Tree pairs well with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in that both are coming-of-age narratives that draw on autobiographical material.

The Men We Reaped is a 2013 memoir by Jesmyn Ward. The author contends with the deaths of five young Black men close to her and considers what it means to be Black in the rural South. Ward alludes to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from her very first page and, like Angelou, explores the subjects of racism, familial relationships, and economic struggle. The Men We Reaped deals with death to a greater extent than Caged Bird, giving readers an in-depth exploration of bereavement and racism in relation to death.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Nora Zeale Hurston, depicts the coming-of-age of Janie Crawford, a light-skinned Black woman who lives in central Florida in the early decades of the twentieth century. The novel pairs well with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in that it explores subjects such as racism, love, religion, and feminine independence from a first-person perspective. Unlike Angelou’s memoir, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows its protagonist into her adult life as well, giving readers a look into Janie’s adulthood and the different loves she finds as she reaches maturity. 

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is a foundational classic of the bildungsroman form. The novel follows the titular Wilhelm as he breaks away from the bourgeois world of his upbringing and pursues a calling as a theater actor. Like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Goethe’s novel is concerned with a youth’s desire to resist the constraints of society and achieve self-realization. Both Maya and Wilhelm find inspiration and wisdom in the works of Shakespeare.

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History of the Text