I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou
(Born as Marguerite Johnson) American novelist, memoirist, poet, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Angelou's novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) through 2000. See also Maya Angelou Criticism.
Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African-American literature, Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a volume of autobiography which details her encounters with Southern racism and her prepubescent rape by her mother's lover. Her literary works—particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—have generated considerable critical and popular interest in part because of their depiction of Angelou's triumph over formidable social obstacles and her struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance. She has since published five additional volumes of autobiography: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father Bailey was a doorkeeper and naval dietician; her mother Vivian was a nurse and realtor. Angelou's family lived in Missouri, Arkansas, and California during her childhood. Angelou attended public schools and studied music, dance, and drama privately. From 1954 to 1955, she appeared in a twenty-two nation tour of the musical Porgy and Bess that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Angelou moved to New York to pursue her acting career and performed in several off-Broadway plays including Calypso Heatwave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1960. In 1960, she accepted a position as an assistant administrator in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Africa. Angelou taught and performed in several plays at the university before returning to the U.S. in 1966. In 1970, Angelou published her first book, the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which focuses on her struggles throughout her formative years and concludes with the birth of her son, Guy, in 1945. In addition to publishing, Angelou has continued to produce, direct, and act in stage productions. In 1974 she directed the film All Day Long and, in 1988, directed the film Down in the Delta. Angelou has held teaching positions at several universities, including the University of California and the University of Kansas. She holds honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University. Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971); a Tony award nomination for best supporting actress in a 1977 production of Roots; and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1992. In 1993 Angelou performed a reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Plot and Major Characters
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles Angelou's life up to age sixteen, providing a child's perspective on the often perplexing and repressive adult world. The work contains a gruesome account of how the eight-year-old Angelou—known as Marguerite Johnson in her childhood—was raped by Mr. Freedman, her mother's lover. Angelou refused to speak for five years following the attack, believing that she had killed her assailant—who was subsequently murdered by her uncles—simply by speaking his name. After her mother moved the family to San Francisco in 1940, Angelou held a job as the first female African-American streetcar conductor while she attended high school. Angelou described herself as “a too big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings concludes with Angelou struggling as a single, teen-aged mother to nurture and protect her newborn son, Guy. Angelou wrote the book, which is the first volume in a series of autobiographies, after friends suggested that she write about her childhood. Angelou spent much of her youth in rural, segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where her pious grandmother ran a general store, and St. Louis, Missouri, where her mother lived. The sense of community and order that Angelou experiences under the tutelage of her Grandmother Henderson in Stamps stands in sharp contrast to the urban, cosmopolitan landscape of St. Louis. Though St. Louis offers opportunity and excitement in many forms, it also is where Angelou is raped, and where social rules and restrictions are ignored or nonexistent. Angelou is cared for in St. Louis, but the noisy city is filled with bustling people, taverns, gambling, and a lifestyle very different from the one in Stamps. In addition to creating a trenchant account of a girl's coming-of-age, Angelou's autobiography also affords insights into the social and political tensions that pervaded much of America during the 1930s.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates many of the dominant conventions of the autobiography genre. The work has a chronological structure, utilizes first-person narration, and is focused on personal development and enrichment. However, the book also embraces characteristics from the fiction genre, including dialogue and vivid, sensory descriptions. Readers have also viewed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a bildungsroman, the story of a young girl's growth and maturation. The book follows Angelou's search for identity and her struggle with sexual abuse, racism, and self-acceptance. The story is dominated by strong African-American women—Angelou's enterprising and pious grandmother, “momma”; the cultured and proud Mrs. Flowers; and Angelou's resourceful and vivacious mother. As Angelou is shuttled between homes, rootlessness and transformation emerge as dominant motifs in the narrative. Critics have often focused on the correlation between language, speech, and identity in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, evidenced by Angelou's suppression and eventual recovery of her own voice. Angelou's recovery from the trauma following her rape signaled her growing sense of self-acceptance and her discovery of her poetic voice.
Considered the strongest of Angelou's autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has garnered critical and commercial success, making Angelou a recognized name in contemporary American literature. Reviewers have praised Angelou's dynamic prose style, poignant humor, and illumination of the African-American consciousness through her portrayal of her own personal experiences. Yet a few educators have asserted that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is inappropriate for children due to Angelou's frank depiction of rape, racism, and teen pregnancy, causing the book to be banned in several school libraries. A number of commentators have placed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings within the tradition of African-American autobiographies, including Richard Wright's Black Boy, Nikki Giovanni's Gemini, and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. Moreover, Angelou's autobiographical work has been perceived as a logical progression from the work of prominent nineteenth-century African-American authors such as Frederick Douglass. Angelou's five subsequent volumes of autobiography have generally been considered inferior, with critics citing their lack of moral complexity and failure to generate empathy or universal appeal.