I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Themes

(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.

Education
Although I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often referred to as an autobiography, Angelou's use of novelistic techniques make literary study of the work a valuable endeavor. Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou's strong belief in the power of education is evident. It is education, through reading, which brings Marguerite out of her silence after her rape, and education that allows her to create a better life for herself. In the author's own life, it was her love of knowledge and her intelligence that propelled her into multiple and exciting careers.

Point of View
Although I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often referred to as an autobiography, Angelou's use of novelistic techniques makes literary study of the work a valuable endeavor.

Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings we see people, places, and events through the imagination of Marguerite. While she often keeps her own counsel, she carries on a private dialogue with herself that is in turn poetic, humorous, sardonic, and tragic. Gifted with the ability to see through shams and affectations, she cuts through to the quick of her observations. She knows intuitively what is real and what is phony, and she processes all this information intellectually over her growing-up years and gradually forms a positive self-image. The shy, awkward child becomes the determined, talented young adult.

Narration
Key to communicating Marguerite's point of view is the narration of the novel. Angelou uses the first person, "I," to tell events, giving the reader direct access to Marguerite's thoughts and concerns. Since the...

(The entire section is 948 words.)