I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Exposing the world to the hardships faced by African Americans in 1930s America, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an important example of the autobiography. This article will look at some of the themes, settings and a summary of the groundbreaking work.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

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Table of contents

    Autobiography is the account of someone's life which is written by the person themselves.

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    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969): summary

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of seven autobiographies written by Maya Angelou. It is the first of the seven and covers Angelou's life from the age of three until she is sixteen. The book's first part chronicles her life in the American South in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou and her brother, Bailey, are left to live with their grandmother Annie Henderson, better known as 'Momma'. The latter part of the book covers Angelou's life as a teenager in California.

    Angelou's life in Arkansas is rife with racist incidents. At the time, the American South had strict segregation laws, and the Ku Klux Klan were prominent, as well as the lynching of members of the African American community. One such incident early in the book tells of a sheriff coming to Momma's shop in Stamps. The sheriff warns Momma that her disabled son Willie needs to hide for the night. He is told to hide because a black man had 'messed with a white woman' (chapter three) and a gang were out seeking revenge.

    The Ku Klux Klan are a racist organisation formed in the 19th century. It is known for its vicious attacks on African Americans and for wearing white hoods.

    There is a brief interval in Angelou's life when her father arrives unannounced to take Angelou and her brother to live with their mother in St Louis. While in St Louis. Angelou is sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend Mr Freeman. At the trial, Angelou refuses to admit that she was molested by Mr Freeman through fear that he would harm her brother. Freeman escapes jail but is murdered by Angelou's uncles.

    Maya Angelou and her brother soon return to Stamps, Arkansas, when Angelou stops speaking as a result of the trauma she suffered. In an attempt to return her voice, Momma introduces Angelou to Mrs Flowers, who reignites Maya's love of books and encourages her to read poems aloud. Despite the progress Angelou makes in her rehabilitation, the next three years are blighted by further racism, and the two children move to California for the final part of the book.

    IKnowWhytheCagedBirdSings,Arkansas,StudySmarterRural Arkansas, where Maya Angelou spent many of her early years. Pixabay.

    Maya Angelou was forty years old when she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and was encouraged by friend and fellow writer James Baldwin after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The book was nominated for a National Book Award in the United States and was widely praised for its literary take on the autobiography.

    Dr Martin Luther King Jr was an American civil rights activist, perhaps most famous for his speech 'I Have a Dream'. On March 4th 1968 King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Meaning

    Maya Angelou's book takes its name from the poem 'Sympathy' (1899) by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem is a reflection on the struggles experienced by the enslaved African American and Dunbar's personal experience of working in unpleasant conditions at the Library of Congress. The poem was published in the collection Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899).

    'Sympathy' can be seen to be about the external limitations forced upon African Americans. This subject is frequently explored in Angelou's autobiography. One scene details how a white speaker at her school suggested African Americans could only find success as athletes or in service. The bird can be interpreted as the African American individual, and the cage could be literal, in the sense of chains or incarceration, or a metaphor for the everyday racism of society at the time.

    The poem goes on to say that the bird's song is not one of 'joy or glee' but 'a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings'. These lines suggest that the bird's song is similar to a prayer for freedom. Others could compare the bird's song to the spiritual songs sung by the enslaved American people.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Purpose

    Maya Angelou held a number of jobs before she took up writing professionally, including being an actor, singer and educator in Ghana. In 1950 she joined the Harlem Writer's Guild, which gave her the opportunity to meet prominent African American writers. One of those was James Baldwin, who Angelou later became close friends with. It was James Baldwin who suggested that Angelou write an autobiography with literary merit.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not altogether a literary endeavour, although Angelou did use fictional techniques to present her autobiography. Angelou decided to write the book after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Angelou had become close to King and played an important part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. After the assassination, Angelou had grown depressed, and James Baldwin suggested at a dinner party that she and other guests share stories of their youth.

    IKnowWhyTheCagedBirdSings,MartinLutherKing,StudySmarterThe assassination of Martin Luther King had a profound effect on Angelou. Pixabay.

    Baldwin and his fellow guests were impressed with Angelou's stories and felt they should be recorded in literature. The Civil Rights movement was at its lowest ebb, and the book would serve as a reminder of the struggles African Americans have faced. The book details the many ways in which racism in America affects a young African American growing up. Angelou and her family frequently witnessed the disregard the southern American whites had for the black community. Be that through violence, neglect or often humiliation.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Themes

    This section will look at the prevalent themes featured throughout Maya Angelou's autobiography.

    Racism

    The book takes place in the 1930s and 1940s in America, with a large amount taking place in the southern state of Arkansas. At the time, the state-enforced strict segregation laws and was a place of little opportunity and great danger for the African American community. Not only did Angelou suffer racism personally and frequently, but racism was almost ever-present for her and the community.

    It was not unusual for the Ku Klux Klan to carry out lynchings in Stamps, as recounted early in the book. Even Angelou's grandmother is subjected to humiliation at the hands of her poor, white tenant's children. This is despite 'Momma' being a well-respected member of the Stamps community. In another scene, 'Momma' takes the young Angelou to a dentist to who she had once lent money. The dentist refuses, saying he would 'rather stick his hand in a dog's mouth'(Chapter twenty four) than that of an African American.

    Even when leaving the American South, Maya Angelou still faces racism in school and when attempting to get a job as a conductor on a tram. Angelou's book vividly depicts the terrible effects of racism both in the extreme and commonplace.

    Isolation

    Maya Angelou and her brother find themselves constantly displaced over the course of the book. This displacement helps instil a deep sense of isolation in the young Angelou. As a precocious child who was essentially abandoned by her parents, Angelou felt isolated throughout her life. Both she and her brother were book smart, which was not common in the rural south. Angelou would often retreat to literature for company.

    The young Angelou also struggled with her body image. This is caused partly by societal expectations of beauty, where she envies some of the white girls she comes across. With her grandmother the only female in her life and a staunch Christian, it proves hard for Angelou to confide in anyone. It is only when Maya moves to California with her mother that she has a chance to discuss her changing body.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Settings

    Maya Angelou and her brother move between seven different homes throughout the book. Here is a brief look at the prominent locations in the autobiography.

    Stamps, Arkansas

    The majority of the book and Maya Angelou's formative years are spent in Stamps, Arkansas. The town is segregated, and as a child, Angelou considers the white community as almost alien to her. Annie 'Momma' Henderson owns the only black-owned shop in Stamps. Every morning Angelou would see workers entering the shop preparing for their day picking cotton. Another large part of Stamps' life revolves around the various churches operating in the community.

    St Louis, Missouri

    Although only a short amount of time is spent in St Louis, it has both a profound and horrific effect on Angelou. It is her first time in a large city or anywhere other than Stamps. It also introduces Angelou to the relatively free life metropolitan African Americans have away from the American South. A more sombre event is the sexual assault Angelou suffers at the hands of Mr Freeman.

    IKnowWhytheCagedBirdSings,StLouis,StudySmarterAngelou's brief trip to St Louis has a profound effect on her life. Pixabay.

    Various, California

    Towards the end of the book, Maya Angelou and her brother move to California to live with their mother, first in LA and Oakland, before settling in San Francisco. They move to San Francisco with their mother's new husband 'Daddy Clidell', who Angelou describes as her first real father. Angelou does spend time with her paternal father, which results in a farcical trip to Mexico.

    I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Key takeaways

    • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is the first of seven autobiographies written by Maya Angelou.
    • The book covers Angelou's life from the age of three up until sixteen.
    • The autobiography covers themes such as racism and isolation.
    • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings takes its title from Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem 'Sympathy' (1899).
    • Maya Angelou was inspired to write the book following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Content warning, StudySmarter

    Frequently Asked Questions about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

    Why was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) banned?

    The book was banned because of the language used and the honest depiction of rape and racism.

    Why is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) important?

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is important as it shows the struggles faced by African Americans in the 1940s.

    What are the main themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)?

    The main themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) are racism and isolation.

    Who wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)?

    Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) takes its title from which poem?

    I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings takes its title from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem 'Sympathy' (1899).

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