(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

American Dream
For Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the American dream was somewhere over the bridge in the white part of town. Through her keen perception and her probing insight into her character Marguerite Johnson, she sees reality in all its beauty and ugliness. Eventually, Marguerite comes to terms with the fact that she is forever black and that she can succeed in a world filled with prejudice. The best example of this is her persistence in becoming the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She has learned to outwit her tormentors, who include snobby whites, pretentious blacks, and most of the men she encounters along the difficult path of growing up.

Coming of Age
Along the way, Marguerite has many mentors to guide her in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings— her grandmother Annie Henderson, Mrs. Flowers, her mother Vivian Baxter Johnson, and her high-school teacher, Miss Kirwin. All her guides are strong women who have preceded her and have survived the similar trials of youth that she is going through. Angelou's portrayal of black males is quite negative; most of the male characters in the book are the weak links in the chain toward her success. It thus becomes a feminist manifesto as well as the story of a shy and awkward black child who blossoms into an assured and self-confident young woman. Writes Angelou, "The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."

Prejudice and Tolerance
Prejudice in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes different forms in the three places where the Johnson children spend their young years. In deep-South Arkansas, lynchings are the ultimate threat to black freedom. In St. Louis, their white-seeming octoroon (one-eighth black) grandmother Baxter has special influence in the political arena of a seamy city. And their mother creates a buoyant and independent life through wit, talent, beauty, and determination. In San Francisco, Marguerite fights the establishment to go where no black has gone before.

Although I Know Why...

(The entire section is 948 words.)