Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Significant Allusions

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Literary Allusions: Many of Angelou’s allusions are to the books and authors she turned to as a child. These literary allusions appear at crucial moments in her autobiography.

  • The Title of Angelou’s Book: “I know why the caged bird sings” is the final line of Black American poet Paul Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” The poem describes a persistent, caged bird that bloodies itself in its struggle for freedom while singing a “prayer” or “plea.” Despite the obstacles of racism, classism, and sexism that Maya faces, she persists. Like Dunbar’s caged bird, she maintains hope, ultimately writing a book that examines the caging forces in her life.
  • William Shakespeare: In Caged Bird, Angelou reflects that William Shakespeare was her “first white love.” As children in Stamps, Maya and Bailey want to memorize a scene from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. However, they realize that Momma wouldn’t approve because Shakespeare is white. Despite Shakespeare’s whiteness, Maya relates to his work. She appreciates “Sonnet 29” the most because it speaks to her loneliness and insecurity as she bemoans her “outcast state” and envies those “more rich in hope.” She also memorizes Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” before her eighth grade graduation. The poem discusses the rape and suicide of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia. Maya’s memorization of this poem is significant in that it helps Maya cope with her own rape and Mr. Freeman’s death. Her recitation of the poem helps her to gain control over her past trauma.
  • The Well of Loneliness: This 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall is about a lesbian love affair. Near the end of Caged Bird, Maya reads The Well of Loneliness, learning about lesbianism and her own sexuality. Hall’s novel portrays a relationship between two English women, who experience isolation and social rejection due to their sexuality. The novel has been both criticized and appreciated for its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian love. The novel intrigues Maya and pushes her to explore her own sexuality.

Cultural Allusions: Angelou weaves into her narrative several cultural allusions, which highlight its motifs of racism and belonging.

  • Kay Francis: In Arkansas, Bailey sees a movie starring Kay Francis (1905–1968), who was a successful American actress during the 1930s. Bailey takes Maya to the movies to witness Kay Francis and her overwhelming similarity to their mother, Vivian Baxter. Maya finds humor in how Francis is adored and famous while looking nearly identical to her own mother; the only difference is in their respective races. Maya feels that her own mother is much prettier but still finds joy in seeing Francis; she feels as if she were seeing her own mother in the movies. 
  • Joe Louis: In Stamps, Arkansas, the entire Black community convenes at Momma’s store to listen to a radio broadcast of a boxing match between “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis (1914–1981) and Italian heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera, which occurred on June 25, 1935. The six-round fight resulted in Louis’s knockout of Carnera. Louis had stints as the heavyweight boxing champion during the 1930s and 40s and is considered one of the greatest boxers of all time. In Caged Bird, the victory is a source of collective pride for the Black community of Stamps. However, in the wake of the fight, Maya and her community try to avoid running into white people for fear that they will be angered by the victory of a Black athlete.

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