Maya Angelou Angelou, Maya (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Least of These (play) 1966

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (poetry) 1971

Georgia, Georgia (screenplay) 1972

All Day Long (screenplay) 1974

Gather Together in My Name (autobiography) 1974

Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (poetry) 1975

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (autobiography) 1976

And Still I Rise (poetry) 1978

The Heart of a Woman (autobiography) 1981

Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (poetry) 1983

All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (autobiography) 1986

Now Sheba Sings the Song (poetry) 1987

I Shall Not Be Moved (poetry) 1990

Life Doesn't Frighten Me (poetry) 1993

On the Pulse of the Morning (poetry) 1993

Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (essays) 1993

The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (poetry) 1994

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (juvenilia) 1994

Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (poetry) 1994

Soul Looks Back in Wonder (poetry) 1994

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (essays) 1997

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (autobiography) 2002

Myra K. McMurry (essay date May 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McMurry, Myra K. “Role-Playing as Art in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird.South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (May 1976): 106–11.

[In the following essay, McMurry discusses the metaphor of the cage in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

As a songwriter, journalist, playwright, poet, fiction and screen-writer, Maya Angelou is often asked how she escaped her past. How does one grow up, Black and female, in the rural South of the thirties and forties without being crippled or hardened? Her immediate response, “How the hell do you know I did escape?”1 is subtly deceptive. The evidence of Angelou's creative accomplishments would indicate that she did escape; but a closer look reveals the human and artistic complexity of her awareness. For the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is not an exorcism of or escape from the past, but a transmutation of that past. The almost novelistic clarity of Caged Bird results from the artistic tension between Angelou's recollected self and her authorial consciousness. Implicit in this dual awareness is the knowledge that events are significant not merely in themselves, but also because they have been transcended.

Angelou takes her title from Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “Sympathy.” Dunbar's caged bird sings from the frustration of imprisonment; its song is a prayer. Angelou's caged bird sings also from frustration, but in doing so, discovers that the song transforms the cage from a prison that denies selfhood to a vehicle for self-realization. The cage is a metaphor for roles which, because they have become institutionalized and static, do not facilitate interrelationship, but impose patterns of behavior which deny true identity.

In Caged Bird Angelou describes her efforts to adapt to the role of a young Black girl, the painfully humorous failures, and the gradual realization of how to transcend the restrictions. At a very early age, the child Angelou, Marguerite Johnson, is an intensely self-conscious child; she feels that her true self is obscured. The autobiography opens with an episode in which Marguerite must recite a poem beginning, “What you looking at me for?” As she struggles for her lines in the Easter morning church service, she is conscious of her dual self, which is the constant subject of her fantasies. Beneath the ugly disguise—the lavender dress cut-down from a white woman's throwaway, the skinny legs, broad feet, nappy hair, and teeth with a space between—was the real Marguerite Johnson, a sweet little white girl with long blond hair, “everybody's dream of what was right with the world” (p. 1). She mixes elements of fairy tale and Easter story to imagine that a cruel fairy step-mother had changed her from her true self to her present condition. And she relishes the recognition scene in which people will say, “‘Marguerite (sometimes it was “dear Marguerite”), forgive us, please, we didn't know who you were,’ and [she] would answer generously, ‘No, you couldn't have known. Of course I forgive you.’”2 This introductory episode is emblematic of the child's perspective. She is in a cage which conceals and denies her true nature, and she is aware of her displacement. Someone whispers the forgotten lines and she completes the poem, which suggests transcendence:

What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay.
I just come to tell you its Easter Day.

But for Marguerite there is no transcendence. After painful confinement in the humiliating situation, the pressure of her true self to escape takes on a physical urgency. She signals request to go to the toilet and starts up the aisle. But one of the children trips her and her utmost control is then effective only as far as the front porch. In her view the choice was between wetting her pants or dying of a “busted head,” for what was denied proper vent would surely back up to her head and cause an explosion and “the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place” (p. 3). The physical violence of the destruction imagined is the child's equivalent for the emotional violence of self-repression.

In Marguerite's world, rigid laws govern every aspect of a child's life: there are laws for addressing adults by proper title, laws for speaking and more for not speaking, laws about cleanliness and obedience, and about performance in school and behavior in church. Although she respects her brother Bailey for his ability to evade some laws, Marguerite is an obedient child. Her transgressions come, not of willful disobedience, but from loss of control in confrontations in which she is physically overpowered by a larger force.

Much of the story of growing up as Marguerite Johnson is the story of learning to control natural responses. Not to laugh at funny incidents in church, not to express impatience when the guest preacher says too long a blessing and ruins the dinner, not to show felt fear, are part of preparation for life in a repressive society.

Although much of Marguerite's repression is related to her being a child, the caged condition affects almost everyone in her world. The customers in her grandmother's store were trapped in the cotton fields; no amount of hope and work could get them out. Bailey, for all his clever manipulations, was “locked in the enigma … of inequality and hate” (p. 168). Her Uncle Willie's own body is his cage. Marguerite observes with the sensitivity of the adult Angelou looking back that he “must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame.” When Marguerite catches Uncle Willie pretending not to be crippled before some out-of-town visitors, she finds the common condition of being caged and the desire to escape ground for sympathy. “I understood and felt closer to him in that moment than ever before or since” (p. 11).

Even the indomitable grandmother, Anne Henderson, rises each morning with the consciousness of a caged animal. She prays, “Guide my feet this day along the...

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Liliane K. Arensberg (essay date December 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.CLA Journal 20, no. 2 (December 1976): 273–91.

[In the following essay, Arensberg asserts that despite the often witty tone of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the primary theme of the narrative is death.]

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that's walked
A song that's spoke
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.

—Maya Angelou

In 1970, at a time when most blacks and a growing number of liberal whites affirmed the ad-campaign motto that...

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Christine Froula (essay date summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.” Signs 11, no. 4 (summer 1986): 621–44.

[In the following essay, Froula considers the impact of female autobiographies—such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple—on literary tradition and modern culture.]

A still, small voice has warned me again to postpone the description of hysteria.1

[Freud to Fliess, January 1, 1896]

I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her.2


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Dolly A. McPherson (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McPherson, Dolly A. “Initiation and Self Discovery.” In Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou, pp. 21–55. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In the following essay, McPherson discusses I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a record of Angelou's discovery of her own interior world and identity.]

“… We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood. … I have spent over fifty years listening to my people.”

—Maya Angelou

“… I think of my life and the lives of...

(The entire section is 11071 words.)

Opal Moore (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Opal. “Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, pp. 306–16. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Moore addresses several of the major criticisms against I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, including the charge that the story is too honest and brutal for young audiences.]

I bring the dreaded disease. I encourage their children to open their hearts to the “dark” side. To know the fear in them. To know the rage. To know the repression that has lopped off their brains—...

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Pierre A. Walker (essay date October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walker, Pierre A. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words and Form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.College Literature 22, no. 3 (October 1995): 91–109.

[In the following essay, Walker evaluates the political nature and influence of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

Maya Angelou has told in interviews how Robert Loomis, her eventual Random House editor, goaded her into writing autobiography, teasing her with the challenge of writing literary autobiography. Considering herself a poet and playwright, she had repeatedly refused Loomis's requests that she write an autobiography until he told her that it was just as well: “‘He …...

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Lyman B. Hagen (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hagen, Lyman B. “The Autobiographies.” In Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, pp. 54–73. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Hagen traces the critical reaction to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

The title of Angelou's first long book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), was suggested by Abbey Lincoln Roach. The appropriateness of this borrowed line is most apparent when it is considered in its original presentation. It is taken from a line in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, “Sympathy.” Asked by an interviewer why does the caged...

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Pamela Loos (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loos, Pamela. “A Life Line.” In Overcoming Adversity: Maya Angelou, pp. 21–31. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

[In the following essay, Loos examines the implications of Marguerite's muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.]

“I was liked … for just being Marguerite Johnson.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970

“Into this cocoon I crept,” Maya Angelou wrote about withdrawing into muteness in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She felt safer when she was silent, and also just by being back in Stamps. There were no tall buildings,...

(The entire section is 2220 words.)