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Summary Article: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
from The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is her first and most celebrated autobiographical narrative, and its publication in 1970 amounted to an urgent demand for black nationalists and white feminists alike to recognize the singular overcoming of adversity that marks the experiential “lifework” of black womanhood.

Taking its cue from the last stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (1899), Angelou’s title refers to the narrator’s achievement of empowering self-awareness in the face of personal injury. With the dissolution of their parents’ marriage, three-year-old Marguerite Johnson (Angelou’s name by birth) and her four-year-old brother, Bailey Jr., are sent from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, or “Momma.” In time Marguerite learns the racist social codes that separate black from white by observing those who patronize or pass by Momma’s general store. Tempering the ever-present threat of a Klan lynching is Angelou’s account of certain hilarious episodes of overzealous, even violent, worship by the church faithful.

When she is eight, Marguerite and Bailey are taken by their father, Bailey Sr., to stay with “Mother,” Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here Marguerite is molested and eventually raped by Mother’s live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. Soon after being found guilty of these crimes in court, Freeman is murdered, presumably by Baxter men out for revenge. Traumatized by this series of events, Marguerite returns to Stamps a morose, introverted child. It is Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Momma’s educated neighbor and friend, who patiently relieves Marguerite of her silent mourning of innocence lost by encouraging the fragile but motivated girl to read books from her personal library.

Marguerite and Bailey move away from Stamps when they are teenagers to live with Mother in San Francisco. A turning point in Marguerite’s life is the harrowing summer she spends with her father in his mobile home in Los Angeles: After being knifed by his live-in girlfriend during a heated argument, Marguerite settles among other abandoned and drifting youth in a junkyard for a month. Her return to San Francisco sees Bailey falling out with Mother, leaving home for good, and Marguerite fighting discriminatory hiring practices to become the first African American to work on the city’s streetcars. The narrative ends with Marguerite, pregnant after having consensual sex for the first time, giving birth to her son as a sixteen-year-old single mother.

Despite offering imaginative and critical insight into black female identity formation and American social history more generally, Angelou’s autobiography has been the target of censorship in intermediate and secondary schools across the nation. In particular, parents and administrators have objected to its “pornographic” representation of child sexual abuse in the form of Marguerite’s rape. What goes unnoticed in such reproof is the main reason why schools took up the book in the first place: Angelou’s coming-of-age narrative confronts the often harsh realities of her past as a means of inspiring readers to locate hope, determination, and self-assurance in their own lives. (See also African American Autobiography)

Further Reading
  • Braxton, Joanne M., ed. Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Jaquin, Eileen O. “Maya Angelou.” African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. 10-28.
  • Megna-Wallace, Joanne. Understanding “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • Smith, Sidonie Ann. “The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou’s Quest after Self-Acceptance.” Southern Humanities Review 7 4 (1973): 365-75.
  • Kinohi Nishikawa
    Copyright © 2005 by Emmanuel S. Nelson

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