Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


The moving and beautiful autobiography of a talented black woman. ". . . I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood . . . have I found myself so moved . . . Her portrait is a Biblical study of life in the midst of death".--James Baldwin.


African American autobiography is now a much-studied mode, as befits a tradition that includes such important works as Frederick Douglass' Narrative of 1845, Richard Wright's Black Boy, Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the ongoing sequence of memoirs by Maya Angelou. Critics have agreed on the importance of the slave narrative and the African American church sermon as sources for this tradition, but I suspect that Angelou, in particular, is highly eclectic, and draws upon a very wide range of influences. The buoyant intensity of her tone, at once intimate and serene, is one of her principal virtues as an autobiographer, and her fictions of the self doubtless will maintain that attractive tone, which brings her an immense variety of readers.

Angelou tells us that she read widely as a child, saving her "young and loyal passion" for the African American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, all of whose voices can still be heard in her own poetry. Dunbar, whom she cites first, provided her with her most famous title, in the final stanza of his High Romantic lyric, "Sympathy," which still impresses me as a poignant and vital poem:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

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