“I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou

From my understanding of her autobiography, Maya had a difficult childhood which may have intrigued her to write the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Born 4th April, 1928, she was condemned to a life of staying with her grandmother after her mother and father divorced.

It is during this time that she encountered the difficulties in her life that shaped her to be the great woman she is today. She was sexually abused at the age eight by her mother’s lover and this devastated Maya for five years for which she did not speak to anyone after the man who raped her was killed by her uncles.

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Maya believed that she had caused the death of the man and felt guilty about the whole incidence, her reasoning being that had she not told revealed the identity of her rapist, he would be alive. Her life is full of challenges for at the age of sixteen years, she gave birth to her son Guy and she started trending down the life of singe parenthood.

Though, later on she was married, it did not last long. However, her passion for writing did not die with her difficulties as she pressed on amid the difficulties to even receive great awards. I choose to analyze the poem from two perspectives that is; a poem denoting the life of Maya through the ups and downs of her life and from a bird’s eye view, a poem denoting the life of the black Americans in the 1930s (Angelou).

From a political understanding; Maya uses symbolism of the caged bird to depict the oppression that the blacks were under in the 1930s. She talks of a caged bird that sings (Angelou), which can be interpreted as the freedom the blacks in American. Racial discrimination haunted the black man in America at around that time. The black man was seeing what was happening all around, more especially when comparison is made on the life within the cage and that one outside it.

By the mere fact that the caged bird wishes to escape from the cage indicates that the blacks were also wishing to live as equals with the whites (Angelou). The societal prejudices are the cage in which the black and white is enslaved. Angelou wishes that these social prejudices that jeopardize peaceful coexistence be the cage that should be removed so as to promote peace and liberty (Angelou).

This poem on a wider perspective can also be use in the context of the struggles of the African American at the time when they were forced into slavery (Angelou). They were working in the whites plantations where they used to singing their traditional tribal songs.

These songs were a means of solace and a way of seeking comfort from their hardships. It is possible therefore to think that the “caged bird” denotes the Africans during that advent of slavery (Angelou), some of the songs sung at that time are presently in the form of Jazz music which is listened to by the people of this generation (Angelou).

One can therefore not be mistaken to look at it from this perspective. Angelou, in the last stanza says, “but longed for and still and his tune is heard on a distance hill’. This could possibly be a pointer to the advent of the civil rights movement that emerged to advocate for the liberation of the blacks. The songs were a way of comforting themselves as well as uniting them

In the first place, why is the caged bird singing (Angelou)? It is singing a song filled with hope that it is going to be heard by the concerned parties so that it can be rescued from the cage. Songs, as a means of communication, are used to pass information faster than just standing up and lecturing about what you want. Songs are regarded as sweet music that is easy to receive and sink in into the minds of a people so that they digest them. By singing, the caged bird is optimistic that his message is going to be taken in by many people (Angelou).

That his music is going to be appealing to its fellow bird that are caged, to those who have confined them to the cage, and those other bird that are outside the cage. This therefore symbolizes the fact that so much has been taken away from the black people; their voices sure cannot be taken away and therefore will continue to seek justice and freedom through their songs, songs of freedom (Angelou).

From different perspective of the poem, the author has used the caged bird as a symbol of the struggles she went through in her early childhood (Angelou).

The poem shows that a part of Maya as an individual is caged and hidden. Her feelings are deep engraved inside her, she is determined to bring them out, because of the lack of freedom that is necessary for her to speak out her mind, that is when she gets to sing of freedom, she is set to achieve that freedom first, that is when she seeks her tool of expression, that is literature, and specifically poetry.

Through poetry she is able to seek the freedom and justice she needs. The injustices done to her (Angelou), that is the rape ordeal, makes her keep quite because the rapist was killed by her uncles, this is so torturous to her such that she is made to think that she is the reason as to why the man was dead, she remained caged in her own mind and conscience such that she does not mingle freely with society (Angelou).

Though later on she opens up to society, a part of her had been negatively dealt with, she becomes a mother at a very tender age and this renders her a single mother, she goes through the hardships of raising her son single handedly and very young. That not withstanding she raises up against all odds to become a respectable member of society. She therefore can be thought of as the free bird that was able to sour through all problems.

The class and caste system of the South serves as the background upon which Angelou derives the inspiration to write the poem. The caged bird can best describe the blacks and the free bird can befit the whites in the American context which inspires the composition of this poem. The caged bird is enclosed in the ‘bars of rage (Angelou)’.

This indicates that it has got no freedom of movement and therefore its life is in the cage and nowhere else. ‘His wings are clipped and his feet are tied (Angelou)’, the bird cannot even fly or move. This shows how much the bird’s hopes of freedom are thwarted and its only tool of expressing its feelings is its voice which cannot be stopped by its captors (Angelou).

That is why its resolves to sing its heart out for someone to hear it and therefore rescue it from its problems. This poem points to the enslavement of the black people who really wish for freedom to come and rescue their dashed hopes of a better life. The bars used to tie the bird down signify the superior white class.

Racial discrimination is deeply engraved in the American context, the free bird is free to do whatever it pleases, and it can swim down stream until the currents end. It has got the freedom denied the caged bird. The free bird is seen to possess a positive attitude towards life that is why it is portrayed as a daredevil that can fly high and even reach the sun.

Whenever a bird is free, it has got the freedom to fly wherever it wishes and whatever it pleases, when it has all its freedom it has room to eat whatever it pleases whenever, it does all that it can do without fear of being reprimanded. That is the kind of world that Angelou advocates for.

That is the world that exists in her poetic life, a world where the caged bird is caged no more (Angelou), that it can move about freely and relate with the free bird. The free bird on the other hand has to be accommodative of the caged bird so that they both sing a uniformed song, that song of freedom.

In the last stanza of the poem, we see how the dream of freedom is just but dead, ‘the caged bird stands on the grave of dreams’. This puts it clear that the caged bird has got no courage to accomplish the dreams that it has; this could be because of lack of courage, therefore it could certainly mean that its freedom is definitely not going to come by and that it will never be accomplished.

In the mainstream American context, people from all walks of life have to be accommodated into this diverse community; skin color should therefore not the reason why one should be treated unfairly (Angelou). Racial segregation should be a thing of the past; all people should relate freely (Angelou), they should understand each other and accommodate each other in all aspects of life. The fat worms could be a representative of the hope and opportunity for the free bird but these needs to be shared with the enslaved one.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. “I Know the Caged Bird Sings”. PoemHunter.com. 3rd March, 2011. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings/

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounts the hardship and traumatic ordeals that she encountered growing up black, female and orphaned in the southern United States in the 1930s.

Though classified as an autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings stands rather as a historical record of American racial tyranny at a time when the Jim Crow segregation laws were in full effect. The novel harkens back to a time when the black community in the United States suffered brutal economic and social suppression, violence with no access to legal recourse, minimal access to basic education and human rights, and limited access to health care.

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This essay highlights one event in the novel related to the struggles faced by Maya and her family in regards to health care, wherein the town dentist Dr. Lincoln refuses to treat Maya’s toothache on the basis of her skin color. Maya’s solution to the racist treatment she and her grandmother receive at the hands of Dr. Lincoln is to fabricate an imaginary revenge scenario in which the dentist comes under the power of the grandmother.

Maya’s understanding of the racist attitudes of the town dentist renders shock when she discovers that her grandmother intends to take her to him. Maya expresses surprise when she learns that her grandmother intends to take her to the white dentist for treatment, as evidenced by the following quote: “Momma said we’d go to Dr. Lincoln, right in Stamps, and he’s take care of me. She said he owed her a favor” (Angelou 186).

Maya’s sense of what medical care was available to her as a black child has already been ingrained in her – she expresses no surprise when her grandmother urges her to change into clean clothes to prepare for the visit. “I had never been to a doctor, so she told me that after the bath…I had to put on freshly starched and ironed underclothes from inside out” (Angelou 186).

Even though Maya knows that her grandmother regularly lends money to whites in the community, she still doesn’t expect to be seen by the dentist. “I knew that there were a number of whitefolks in town that owed her favors. Bailey and I had seen the books which showed how she lent money to Blacks and whites alike during the Depression, and most still owed her…but I [never] heard of a of a Negro’s going to him as a patient” (Angelou 186).

Maya’s solution to the challenge of the racist dentist’s harsh refusal to treat Maya is to create a revenge fantasy wherein her grandmother claims the position of power. When the dentist’s assistant closes the door in her grandmother’s face, Maya experiences a familiar sense of humiliation. “Momma knocked on the back door and a young white girl opened it to show surprise at seeing us there…Momma said she wanted to see Dentist Lincoln and to tell him Annie was there. The girl closed the door firmly” (Angelou 187).

To solve the problem of the racist dentist who rejects Maya with the cutting remark that he would rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth than in the mouth of a black child, Maya conjures a fantasy wherein the Momma and the Dentist exchange power roles and the dentist becomes obsequious.

“You knave, do you think you acted like a gentleman, speaking to me like that in front of my granddaughter? She didn’t shake him, although she had the power…No, ma’am Mrs. Henderson ” (Angelou 190).

Maya rationalizes her grandmother’s acceptance of the racist treatment with the following: “I didn’t ask you to apologize in front of Marguerite, because I don’t want her to know my power, but I order you, now and herewith.

Leave Stamps by sundown.” (Angelou 190). Finally, Maya invests her grandmother with an elevated command of language to show her dominance over the dentist. “Her tongue had thinned and the words rolled off well enunciated. Enunciated and sharp like little claps of thunder…She could afford to slip into the vernacular because she had such an eloquent command of English” (Angelou 190).

Maya’s comprehension of how her grandmother dealt with the situation in reality offers her less emotional satisfaction that the fantasy. Maya hears her grandmother explaining to Uncle Willie that what really happened with the dentist was simply that she called in her loan: “If you paid me my money I could afford to take her…Even though by rights he was paid up before, I figger, he gonna be that kind of nasty, he gonna have to pay for it… Momma and her son laughed over the white man evilness and he retributive sin. I preferred, much preferred, my version” (Angelou 193).

Maya’s solution to the racist treatment she and her grandmother receive at the hands of Stamps dentist Dr. Lincoln, a man indebted to her grandmother’s innate sense of Christian charity, is to manufacture an elaborate imaginary revenge scenario wherein the dentist comes under the thrall of the magical grandmother. However, in reality Maya is disappointed by the grandmother’s tactic, without realizing that the grandmother compromised her Christian principles in order to get proper health care for her charge.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.


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