- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
name = I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
orig title =
country = United States
language = English
publisher = Random House
release_date = 1969
media_type = Print (Hardback)
pages = 288 pp (Hardcover)
isbn = ISBN 9-7803-7550789-2
Gather Together in My Name
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is a 1969
autobiographyabout the early years of author Maya Angelou's life. The book's title is taken from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to Stamps, Arkansasto live with their grandmother and ends when Maya becomes a mother at age seventeen years old. The author uses her coming-of-age story to illustrate the ways in which racismand trauma can be overcome by a strong character and a love of literature. Its graphic depiction of childhood rape, racism, and sexuality have resulted in the book being challenged or banned in many libraries and by many parent groups. It was nominated for a National Book Awardin 1970 and remained on " The New York Times" paperback bestseller list for two years.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" has been called "perhaps the most aesthetically satisfying autobiography written in the years immediately following the Civil Rights era". [Braxton, p. 4] The book was inspired by the
assassinationof Martin Luther King, Jr.cite news | last = Smith | first = Dinitia | title = A career in letters, 50 years and counting | work = The New York Times | date = 2007-01-23| url = http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/23/books/23loom.html | accessdate = 2007-10-23] Angelou was "tricked" into writing it by her friend James Baldwin and her editor, Robert Loomis, who gave her the challenge of writing autobiographyas literature. Although classified as an autobiography and written in first-person narrative, the book has many fictional aspects, causing some critics to classify it as an autobiographical novel.
The central character of the book has been called "a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America". [Tate, p. 150] Angelou uses the younger version of herself to illustrate themes such as
identity, rape, racism, and literacy. In the course of "Caged Bird", Maya goes from being a victim of racism and having an inferiority complex, to someone who knows who she is and who is able to respond to racism with dignity. Angelou's depiction of rape has been controversial, and although brief compared to the rest of the book, it overwhelms the text. Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in Dunbar's poem as a central image throughout the book, which consists of "a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression". Angelou also shows the power of words and how literature helped her survive. "Caged Bird" has been used in educational settings from high schools to universities.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is the first in a six-volume autobiographical series, covering Angelou's childhood and young adult experiences. Later books in the series include "
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).
Background and title
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" has been called "perhaps the most aesthetically satisfying autobiography written in the years immediately following the Civil Rights era". [Braxton (1999), p. 4] Critic Opal Moore says about "Caged Bird": "... Though easily read, [it] is no 'easy read'". [Moore, p. 55] The book was inspired by the 1968 assassination of
Martin Luther King, Jr.; he named Angelou the Northern Coordinator for his Southern Christian Leadership Conferencein the late 1950s. Angelou was "deeply depressed", so to help lift her spirits, Angelou's friend James Baldwinbrought her to a dinner party at the home of cartoonist Jules Feifferand his wife Judy. The guests began telling stories of their childhoods, so the following day Judy Feiffer called Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, and "told him that he ought to get this woman to write a book". At first, Angelou refused to write her autobiography, since she considered herself a poet and playwright.cite journal | last = Walker | first = Pierre A. | title = Racial protest, identity, words, and form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | journal = College Literature | volume = 22 | issue = 3 | pages = 91–108 | date = October 1995 | url = http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3709/is_199510/ai_n8723217 | accessdate = 2008-05-24] She reported that he "tricked" her into it by "daring" her: "It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible". In her words, Angelou was unable to "resist a challenge", and she began to write "Caged Bird."
Although Angelou did not write "Caged Bird" with the intention of writing a series of autobiographies, she went on to write five additional volumes, covering her young adult experiences. They are distinct in style and narration, but unified in their themes and "stretch over time and place", [Lupton, p. 1] from Arkansas to Africa and back to the US, occurring in time from the beginnings of
World War IIto King's assassination. [Lupton, p. 1] Like "Caged Bird", the events in these books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include " 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). Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first", with "Caged Bird" receiving the highest praise.
The title of the book comes from the third stanza of the poem "Sympathy", by
Paul Laurence Dunbar:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, When he beats his bars and would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings – I know why the caged bird sings.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" follows Marguerite's (called "My" or "Maya" by her brother) life from the age of three to sixteen and the struggles she experiences in the racist South. Abandoned by their parents, Maya and her older brother, Bailey, are sent to live with their paternal grandmother ("Momma"), a smart, religious, and entrepreneural woman, and crippled uncle ("Uncle Willie") in
Stamps, Arkansas. Maya and Bailey are haunted by their parents' abandonment throughout the book. They travel alone and are labeled like baggage. [Bloom, p. 19]
Many of the problems Maya encounters in her childhood stem from the prejudices and blatant racism of her white neighbors. Despite the fact that Momma is wealthier because she owns the general store that serves as the center of activities in the black part of town, the white children of their town hassle them insolently. One of these "powhitetrash" girls reveals her
pubic hairto Momma in a humiliating incident. Early in the book (chapter three), Momma hides Uncle Willie in a vegetable bin to protect him from Ku Klux Klanraiders. Maya experiences many other instances of racism throughout the book. She has to endure the insult of her name being shortened to "Mary" by a racist employer. A white speaker at her eighth grade graduation ceremony disparages the black audience by implying their limited job opportunities. A white dentist refuses to treat Maya's rotting tooth, even when Momma reminds him of a previous loan. The black community of Stamps enjoys a moment of victory for their race, when they listen to the radiobroadcast of Joe Louis' championship fight, but they feel oppressed by racism.
A turning point in the book occurs when Maya and Bailey's father unexpectedly appears in Stamps, where his big city ways impress the small town. He takes them with him when he leaves after three weeks, but brings them to their mother in
St. Louis. Eight-year-old Maya is sexually abused and rapedby her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. There is a trial, and Mr. Freeman is found guilty, but he escapes jail time and is murdered, probably by her uncles. This burdens Maya with guiltand causes her to withdraw from everyone but her brother. Even after being sent back to Stamps, Maya remains reclusive and nearly muteuntil she meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers, "the aristocrat of Black Stamps", [Angelou, p. 93] who supplies her with books to encourage her love of reading, and coaxes her out of her shell.
Finally, when Bailey is disturbed by the discovery of the corpse of a black man, Momma decides to send her grandchildren to their mother in
San Francisco, California. Maya attends George Washington High School and studies dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she becomes the first black female streetcarconductor in San Francisco. Maya visits her father in southern California one summer. She drives a car for the first time when she must transport her intoxicated father home from an excursion to Mexico. She experiences homelessnessfor a short time, after a fight with her father's girlfriend.
adolescence, but not without awkwardness. She becomes worried that she might be a lesbian(which she equates with being a hermaphrodite), and initiates sexual intercoursewith a teenage boy. She becomes pregnant, which on the advice of her brother, she hides from her family until her eighth month of pregnancy in order to graduate from high school. Maya gives birth at the end of the book and begins her journey to adulthood by accepting her role as a mother to her newborn son.
Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and the development of theme, setting, plot, and language often result in the placement of her books into the genre of
autobiographical fiction. According to Critic Mary Jane Lupton, it is useful to label "Caged Bird" as a " Bildungsroman", or "coming-of-age" story; she compares it to George Eliot's " The Mill on the Floss". [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA30&sig=ACfU3U0bU-xPvz1pTLgPGdf30Cj2T7k12A p. 30] ] Angelou characterizes her works as autobiographies, [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA30&sig=ACfU3U0bU-xPvz1pTLgPGdf30Cj2T7k12A p. 29–30] ] but she has placed herself in this genre while critiquing, changing, and expanding it. [Lupton, p.98] Angelou has recognized that she has followed the slave narrativetradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'". As with most autobiographies, Angelou uses the first-person narrative voice, in spite of its fiction-like aspects, told from the perspective of a child that is "artfully recreated by an adult narrator". [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA52&sig=ACfU3U1qtk4nFWPr_vUjBv9xGbv4dlQvQg p. 52] ] She uses two distinct voices, the adult writer and the child who is the focus of the book, whom Angelou calls "the Maya character". [Tate, p. 150] Angelou reports that maintaining this distinction is "damned difficult", but "very necessary". [Tate, p.150] Scholar Liliane Arensberg insists that Angelou "retaliates for the tongue-tied child's helpless pain" by using her adult self's irony and wit. [Arensberg, p. 114]
Scholar Joanne M. Braxton sees the book as "representative of autobiographies written by black women in the post-civil rights era". [ Braxton (2004), p. 63] "Caged Bird" presents themes that are common in autobiography by black American women: the celebration of black motherhood, the criticism of racism, the importance of family, and the quest for self-sufficiency, personal dignity, and self-definition. [Braxton (2004), p. 64] Angelou recognizes that there are fictional aspects to her books; she tends to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth", [Lupton, p. 34] which parallels the conventions of much of African American autobiography written during the
abolitionistperiod of US history, when the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection. [Sartwell, p. 26] At the same time, however, Angelou introduces a unique point of view in American autobiography by revealing her life story through a narrator who is a black female, at some points a child and other points a mother. [Lupton, p. 52–53] Writer Hilton Als calls Angelou one of the "pioneers of self-exposure", willing to focus on the more negative aspects of her personality and choices.
The challenge for much of African-American literature is that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature, which is why Robert Loomis was able to dare Angelou into writing "Caged Bird" by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art". According to Angelou, her friend James Baldwin had a "covert hand" in getting her to write the book, and advised Loomis to use "a little reverse psychology". [cite news | last = Neary | first = Lynn | title = At 80, Maya Angelou reflects on a 'glorious' life | publisher = NPR | date =
2008-04-06| url = http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89355359 | accessdate = 2008-05-29] As Walker insists, when Angelou wrote the book at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature was thematic unity, and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria. The events in her books are crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements do not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they are placed to emphasize the themes of her books. Walker believes that Angelou succeeded, in spite of the otherwise episodic quality of the narrative. During Angelou's 1998 interview with journalist George Plimpton, she discusses her writing process, and "the sometimes slippery notion of truth in nonfiction"cite journal | last = Rogers | first = Ronald R. | title = Journalism: The democratic craft | journal = Newspaper Research Journal | date = Spring 2006 | url = http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3677/is_200604/ai_n19197231 | accessdate = 2008-08-30] and memoirs. When asked if she changed the truth to improve her story, she stated, "Sometimes I make a diameter from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in only one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about".
Loomis has been Angelou's editor throughout her writing career. [cite news | last = Arnold | first = Martin | title = Making books; Familiarity breeds content | work = New York Times | date =
2001-04-12| url = http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9801E0D91731F931A25757C0A9679C8B63&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/T/Tyler,%20Anne | accessdate = 2007-10-11] Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers". [cite book | last = Arensberg | first = Liliane K. | editor = Joanne M. Braxton | title = Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook | year = 1999 | publisher = Oxford Press | location = New York | isbn = 0-1951-1606-2 | page = 111 | chapter = Death as Metaphor of Self] In spite of the "conversational" tone of her books and her apparent easy style, Angelou insists that she works hard at her writing. Beginning with "Caged Bird", she has used the same "writing ritual" [Lupton, p.15] for many years. She gets up at five in the morning and checks into a hotel room, where the staff has been instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She writes on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, " Roget's Thesaurus", and the Bible, and leaves by the early afternoon. She averages 10-12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening. [ Citation | last = Sarler | first = Carol | contribution = A life in the day of Maya Angelou | year = 1989 | title = Conversations with Maya Angelou | editor-last = Elliot | editor-first = Jeffrey M. | place = Jackson, MI | publisher = University Press | isbn = 0-8780-5362-X ]
As feminist scholar Maria Lauret states, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s have used the autobiography to restructure the ways to write about women's lives in a male-dominated society. Lauret sees a connection between the autobiographies Angelou has written and fictional first-person narratives; they can be called "fictions of subjectivity" and "feminist first-person narratives" because they employ the narrator as protagonist and "rely upon the illusion of presence in their mode of signification". [Lauret, [http://books.google.com/books?id=xK_Pv0fc2L8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22Maria+Lauret%22&sig=ACfU3U25UlxbmmPoh_0dAkxyMSztTDYCtg#PPA98,M1 p. 98] ]
Maya, who has been described as "a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America", [Tate, p. 150] lives in a hostile world that defines beauty in terms of being white, and as a child, she internalizes this notion. Her belief that she was ugly was "absolute". She is a displaced person who pain is worsened by her awareness of her displacement. [McPherson (1999), p. 24] Maya is "the forgotten child", and must come to terms with "the unimaginable reality" of being unloved and unwanted. [McPherson (1999), p. 26] In the course of "Caged Bird", however, Maya goes from being a victim of racism and having an inferiority complex, to someone who knows who she is and who is able to respond to racism with dignity. African American literature scholar Dolly McPherson states that Angelou, in her demonstration of her passage from childhood to young adulthood, creatively uses "the Christian myth" and presents the themes of death, regeneration, and rebirth. [McPherson (1999), p. 26] Scholar Liliane Arensberg calls this Angelou's "identity theme" and a major motif in Angelou's narrative. Maya's unsettled life in "Caged Bird" suggests her sense of self "as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications". [Arensberg, p. 115] Lauret states that "the formation of female cultural identity" is woven into Angelou's narrative, setting her up as "a role model for Black women". Lauret agrees with other scholars that Angelou uses her many roles, incarnations, and identities in her books to "signify multiple layers of
oppressionand personal history". Angelou begins this technique in her first autobiography, and continues it in her subsequent volumes, especially her demonstration of the "racist habit" [Lauret, [http://books.google.com/books?id=xK_Pv0fc2L8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22Maria+Lauret%22&sig=ACfU3U25UlxbmmPoh_0dAkxyMSztTDYCtg#PPA97,M1 p. 97] ] of renaming African Americans in "Caged Bird", as shown when Maya's white employer insists on calling her "Mary". Angelou describes this as the "hellish horror of being 'called out of [one's] name'". [Angelou, p. 91] Scholar Debra Walker King calls it a racist insult and "a violent verbal assault against the child's race and her self-image". [King, p. 189] According to scholar Sidonie Ann Smith, this renaming emphasizes Maya's feelings of inadequacy and denigrates her identity, individuality, and uniqueness. Maya understands this in the book, and rebels by breaking Mrs. Cullinan's favorite dish. [Smith, p. 53]
Another incident that solidifies Maya's identity is her trip to
Mexicowith her father, when she has to drive a car, something she had never done before, in order to return to California. For the first time and contrasted with her experience in Stamps, Maya is "totally in control of her fate". [Smith, p. 55] Maya recognizes the importance of this incident, as well as the incident that immediately follows it, her short period of homelessness after arguing with her father's girlfriend. These two incidences give Maya a knowledge of self-determination and confirm her self-worth. [Smith, p. 54]
"Kinship concerns" is woven throughout "Caged Bird". [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA11&sig=ACfU3U2qrcqhRJZDovWZKkbGA1Kg4G2AoQ p. 11] ] McPherson believes that Angelou's concept of family throughout her books must be understood in the light of the way in which she and her older brother were displaced by their parents at the beginning of "Caged Bird". [McPherson (1990), p. 14] Being sent away from their parents constituted a psychological rejection, something that as young children, was internalized and interpreted as "a rejection of self". This rejection also resulted in a quest for love, acceptance, and self-worth. [Smith, p. 52] Associated with the theme of kinship in "Caged Bird" is the theme of community. The black community of Stamps must be strong, nurturing, and cohesive in order to withstand an antagonistic environment, especially white violence against black men. [McPherson (1999), p. 30]
Beginning in "Caged Bird", when Maya becomes a mother at the end of the book, motherhood is a "prevailing theme"cite web | url = http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=180 | title = Maya Angelou | publisher = Poetry Foundation | accessdate = 2007-10-25] in all of Angelou's autobiographies. Lupton believes that Angelou's plot construction and character development were influenced by this mother/child motif found in the work of
Harlem Renaissancepoet Jessie Fauset. [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA49&sig=ACfU3U0SR3WP61UVW9BIUY7YdkcF-kxqOA p. 49] ] Maya's feelings and relationship with her own mother, whom she blames for her abandonment, expresses itself in ambivalence and "repressed violent aggression" [Arensberg, p. 118] Scholar Mary Burgher believes that black women autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers of "breeder and matriarch" and have presented them as having "a creative and personally fulfilling role". [Burgher, p. 115]
It should be clear, however, that this portrayal of rape is hardly titillating or "pornographic." It raises issues of trust, truth and lie, love, the naturalness of a child's craving for human contact, language and understanding, and the confusion engendered by the power disparities that necessarily exist between children and adults. --Poet and critic Opal Moore [Moore, p. 53]
Stamps, Arkansas, as presented by Angelou in "Caged Bird", had very little "social ambiguity",cite news | last = Als | first = Hilton | title = Songbird: Maya Angelou takes another look at herself | work = The New Yorker | url = http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/08/05/020805crbo_books?currentPage=all | accessdate = 2002-08-05] a world divided between black and white, male and female. According to author Hilton Als, who characterized this division as "good and evil", it shaped Angelou's young life and informed her life far into her adulthood. Als also insists that this division was generally directed at black women. Scholar Mary Vermillion goes further, maintaining that a black woman who writes about her
raperisks reinforcing negative stereotypes about her race and gender. [Vermillion, pgs. 60-61]
Angelou's description of her own rape as an eight-year-old child in "Caged Bird" overwhelms the autobiography, even though it is presented briefly in the text. [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA67&sig=ACfU3U0EOGo_8NK-Q1P9TOeLV-Ukgi4dnQ p. 67] ] Vermillion compares Angelou's treatment of rape to Harriet Jacobs's in her autobiography, "
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". Jacobs and Angelou both use rape as a metaphor for the suffering of their race, but while Jacobs uses it to critique slaveholding culture, Angelou at first internalizes twentieth-century racist conceptions of the black female body, and then challenges them. [Vermillion, p. 66] Rape "represents the black girl's difficulties in controlling, understanding, and respecting both her body and her words". [Vermillion, p. 67] According to Arensberg, Maya's rape is connected to Angelou's theme of death in "Caged Bird". It is performed under threat of death, when Mr. Freeman threatens to kill her brother if she told anyone. Maya sees herself and her words as a bearer of death, since her lie during Mr. Freeman's rape trial resulted in his death. As a result, she resolves to never speak to anyone, except for Bailey.
Maya's rape demonstrates how as a Black female, she is violated as she moves from childhood to adolescence. African American literature scholar Selwyn R. Cudjoe calls its depiction "a burden": a demonstration of "the manner in which the Black female is violated in her tender years and . . . the 'unnecessary insult' of Southern girlhood in her movement to adolescence". Angelou connects the violation of her body and the devaluation of her words by the depiction of her self-imposed, five-year long silence after Mr. Freeman's rape trial and murder. [Vermillion (2004), p. 73] As Angelou stated, "I thought if I spoke, my mouth would just issue out something that would kill people, randomly, so it was better not to talk". [cite journal | last = Healy | first = Sarah | title = Maya Angelou speaks to 2,000 at Arlington Theater | journal = Daily Nexus | volume = 81 | issue = 82 | location = UC Santa Barbara | date = 2001-02-21 | url = http://www.dailynexus.com/article.php?a=456 | accessdate = 2008-06-13] When asked decades later how she was able to survive such trauma, Angelou explained it by stating, "I can't remember a time when I wasn't loved by somebody." [Braxton, p. 11] Angelou was also asked, by the same interviewer, why she wrote about the rape, she responded that she wanted to demonstrate the complexities of rape. She also wanted to prevent it from happening to someone else, so that anyone who had been raped might gain understanding and not blame herself for it. [Braxton, p. 12]
Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem as a "central image" throughout her series of autobiographies. [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA38&sig=ACfU3U2Ih0rkVvnJa2JG8rNcgsJ9pgBi6Q p. 38] ] Like elements within the prison narrative, the caged bird represents Angelou's imprisonment from the racism inherent in Stamps, Arkansas, and her continuing experiences of other forms of imprisonment, like racial discrimination, drugs, marriage, and the economic system. [Lupton, p. 38–39] This metaphor also invokes the "supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle".cite web | last = Long | first = Richard | title = 35 who made a difference: Maya Angelou | publisher = Smithsonian.com | date =
2005-11-01| url=http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/10013086.html | accessdate = 2007-10-25]
French writer Valérie Baisnée puts Angelou's autobiographies in the midst of literature written during and about the American Civil Rights movement. [Baisnée, [http://books.google.com/books?id=LeG6k36sYSkC&pg=PA62&sig=ACfU3U1tjko4HdTQKk1Sm1TO2pa0hG5hJw p.62] ] Lupton states that "Caged Bird" "captures the vulgarity of white Southern attitudes toward African Americans". Angelou demonstrates, through her involvement with the black community of Stamps, her developing understanding of the rules for surviving in a racist society. Angelou also vividly presents racist characters "so real one can feel their presence". [Lupton, p. 63] Her early experiences with racism are so powerful, that in 1982, during an interview with
Bill Moyersin Stamps, she is unable to cross some railroad tracks into the white part of town. [cite web | last = Smiley | first = Tavis | title = Bill Moyers | publisher = PBS.org | date = 2004-05-11| url = http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200405/20040511_moyers.html | accessdate = 2008-05-31] Critic Pierre A. Walker places "Caged Bird" in the African American literature tradition of political protest, and insists that the unity of Angelou's autobiographies serves to underscore one of her central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it.cite journal | last = Walker | first = Pierre A. | title = Racial protest, identity, words, and form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | journal = College Literature | volume = 22 | issue = 3 | pages = 91–108 | date = October 1995 | url = http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3709/is_199510/ai_n8723217 | accessdate = 2008-05-24] Walker also states that Angelou's biographies, beginning with "Caged Bird", consists of "a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression". This sequence leads Angelou, as the protagonist, from "helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest" throughout all six of her autobiographies.
Walker insists that Angelou's treatment of racism is what gives "Caged Bird" its internal thematic unity. The book, like most autobiographies, begins with Angelou's earliest memories, but she relates events non-chronologically. For example, her description of the "powhitetrash" girls that taunt her grandmother occurs in chapter five, when Maya was about ten years old, two years after her rape, which occurs in chapter 12. Maya reacts to the "powhitetrash" incident with "rage, indignation, humiliation, [and] helplessness", but Mama teaches her how they can maintain their personal dignity and pride while dealing with racism. Walker calls this a "strategy of subtle resistance", and McPherson calls it "the dignified course of silent endurance". [McPherson (1999), p. 33] Later chapters in "Caged Bird" demonstrate the limitations of subtle resistance, but Angelou shows that it serves as a basis for moving to actively protesting and combating racism. She presents other ways of responding to racism, like when Maya broke the race barrier and became the first black street-car operator, Angelou's description of her eighth-grade graduation, the treatment of Maya by her white employer, and the dentist scene. In addition, her description of the strong and cohesive black community of Stamps demonstrates how African Americans subvert their institutions to withstand racism. [McPherson, p. 38] Arensberg insists that Angelou demonstrates how she, as a black child, moves from her unfortunate "racial hatred", [Arensberg, p. 116] common in the works of many contemporary black novelists and autobiographers. Maya wishes that she become white, since growing up black in white America is dangerous.
As Lupton says, all of Angelou's autobiographies, especially this volume and the one that follows it, "
Gather Together in My Name", is "very much concerned with what [Angelou] knew and how she learned it". Lupton compares Angelou's informal education with the education of other black writers of the 20th century who did not earn a college degree and depended upon the "direct instruction of African American cultural forms". [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA16&sig=ACfU3U3QQ2qg75h-GKLlCYWcSA5kdhpy6w p. 16] ] Angelou is influenced by the writers Mrs. Flowers introduced her to during her period of muteness following her rape, including Edgar Allan Poeand William Shakespeare(Angelou states, early in "Caged Bird", that she "met and fell in love with William Shakespeare"), [Angelou, p. 13] and by genres like slave narratives, spirituals, poetry, and other autobiographies. [Lupton, [http://books.google.com/books?id=nBsaFf4qzRQC&pg=PA32&sig=ACfU3U0XPBycQl_hVfY3SOgK_Is66pAtPw p. 32] ] Critic Mary Vermillon sees a connection between Maya's rape and Shakespeare's " The Rape of Lucrece", which Maya memorizes and recites when she regains her speech. Vermillon maintains that Maya finds comfort in the poem's identification with suffering. [Vermillon, p. 69] Maya finds novels and their characters complete and meaningful, so she apprehends and judges her bewildering world through them. She is so involved in her fantasy world of books that she even uses them to cope while being raped. [Arensberg, p. 113]
According to Walker, the power of words is another theme that appears repeatedly in "Caged Bird". For example, Maya chooses to not speak after her rape because she is afraid of the destructive power of words. Mrs. Flowers, by introducing her to classic literature and poetry, teaches her about the positive power of words and empowers Maya to speak again. In a 1993 interview with
Oprah Winfrey, Angelou advises her to "do as West Africans do ... listen to the deep talk", or the "utterances existing beneath the obvious". [Walker, p. 1] As McPherson says, "If there is one stable element in Angelou's youth it is [a] dependence upon books". The public libraryis a refuge to which Maya retreats when she experiences crisis, [McPherson (1999), p. 113] and it becomes a "quiet refuge" from the chaos of her life. [Arensberg, p. 113]
Critical reception and sales
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is the most highly acclaimed of Angelou's autobiographies, which are judged and compared to her first. With the publication of her first autobiography, Angelou became known, according to the "
New York Times Book Review", as an author who "writes like a song, and like the truth. The wisdom, rue and humor of her storytelling are borne on a lilting rhythm completely her own." Angelou's friend and mentor, James Baldwin, maintained that her book "liberates the reader into life" and called it "a Biblical study of life in the midst of death". [Moore, p. 56]
Poet James Bertolino asserts that "Caged Bird" "is one of the essential books produced by our culture", and says, "...We should all read it, especially our children". [Bertolino, p. 199] It was nominated for a
National Book Awardin 1970; [Cullinan & Person, [http://books.google.com/books?id=0LyutQg6mroC&pg=PA36&sig=ACfU3U320AdBj_QhQiPfLrNM8j3F3I5UhQ p. 36] ] in 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on " The New York Times" paperback nonfiction bestseller list. [cite web | title = Biography Information | publisher = Maya Angelou Official Website | url = http://www.mayaangelou.com/LongBio.html | accessdate = 2007-10-24] By the end of 1969, critics had placed Angelou in the tradition of other black autobiographers. Critic Robert A. Gross called "Caged Bird" "more than a tour de force of language". [McPherson (1999), p. 22] Edmund Fuller insisted that Angelou's "artistry and intellectual range" were apparent in how she told her story. [McPherson (1999), p. 22] "Caged Bird" catapulted Angelou to international fame, critical acclaim, and "heralded the success of other now prominent [black women] writers". [Baisnée, [http://books.google.com/books?id=LeG6k36sYSkC&pg=PA56&sig=ACfU3U3PllKuOT79YcM47LexDUSJsFafMA p. 56] ]
The week after Angelou recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's 1993
inauguration, sales of the paperback version of "Caged Bird" and her other writings rose by 300-600 percent. Bantam Bookshad to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 12,000 percent increase. [cite news | last = Brozan | first = Nadine | title = Chronicle | work = New York Times | date = 1993-01-30| url = http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CEEDA113CF933A05752C0A965958260 | accessdate = 2008-09-24]
In one of the few negative reviews of "Caged Bird", author
Francine Prosefinds the inclusion of the book in the curriculum of high school literature courses as partly responsible for the "dumbing down" of American society. Prose calls the book finds Angelou's style "manipulative melodrama". Prose also finds Angelou's writing an inferior example of "poetic" prose style and of memoir. She accuses Angelou of combining a dozen metaphors in one paragraph and for "obscuring ideas that could be expressed so much more simply and felicitously". [cite journal | last = Prose | first = Francine | title = I know why the caged bird cannot read | journal = Harper's Magazine | date = September 1999 | url = http://www.scribd.com/doc/2315657/HarpersMagazine1999090060648 | accessdate = 2008-10-06]
When "Caged Bird" was published in 1970, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black women writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who calls "Caged Bird" "a work of art that eludes description", insists that Angelou's autobiography set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole. Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. "Caged Bird" made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer". [Braxton (1999), p. 4] Poet Hilton Als insists that although "Caged Bird" was an important contribution to the increase of black
feministwritings in the 1970s, he attributes its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, freed many other women writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world".
Angelou's autobiographies, including this volume, have been used in
narrativeand multiculturalapproaches in teacher education. Dr. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has used "Caged Bird" and " Gather Together in My Name" to train teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genreof African American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography". [cite journal | last = Glazier | first = Jocelyn A. | title = Moving closer to speaking the unspeakable: White teachers talking about race | journal = Teacher Education Quarterly | volume = 30 | issue = 1 | pages = 73–94 | publisher = California Council on Teacher Education | date = Winter 2003 | url = http://www.calfac.org/allpdf/teqwinter2003/glazier.pdf | accessdate = 2008-02-18]
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, "Stories of Resilience in Childhood", analyzed the events in "Caged Bird" to illustrate
resiliencyin children. Challener insists that Angelou's book provides a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did. [cite book | last = Challener | first = Daniel D. | title = Stories of Resilience in Childhood | publisher = Taylor & Francis | date = 1997 | location = London, England | pages = 22-23 | isbn = 0-815328-00-1] Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using "Caged Bird" to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child developmenttopics such as the development of self-conceptand self-esteem, ego resilience, industryversus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formationin adolescence. He finds the book a "highly effective" tool in providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts. [cite journal | last = Boyatzis | first = Chris J. | title = Let the caged bird sing: Using literature to teach developmental psychology | journal = Teaching of Psychology | volume = 19 | issue = 4 | pages = 221-222 | date = February 1992 | url = http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a785858917~db=all~order=page | accessdate = 2008-10-06]
"Caged Bird" elicits criticism for its honest depiction of rape, its exploration of the ugly spectre of racism in America, its recounting of the circumstances of Angelou's own out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, and its humorous poking at the foibles of the institutional church. --Opal Moore [Moore, p. 50]
"Caged Bird" has been criticized by many parents, causing its removal from school
curriculaand library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, "Parents, schools and related organizations have argued that the book encourages deviant behavior because of its references to lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography and violence". [ cite web | title = Maya Angelou, I know why the caged bird sings | publisher = National Coalition Against Censorship | url = http://www.thefileroom.org/documents/dyn/DisplayCase.cfm/id/796 | accessdate = 2007-10-23 ] Censors have also been critical of its "sexually explicit scenes, foul language, and irreverent religious depictions". [Foerstel, p. [http://books.google.com/books?id=KjbxM4CshdIC&pg=PA195&sig=ACfU3U3XQtjYXtX1f16TtH5yxcePF_HJvg 195–196] ] The book is challenging for both young readers and the educators who choose to bring it into their classrooms, so there has been some recognition of the importance of the preparedness of teachersto effectively introduce the book to young readers. [Moore, p. 55]
"Caged Bird" appears third on the
American Library Associationlist of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. [ cite web | title = The 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990–2000 | publisher = American Library Association | url = http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/100mostfrequently.htm | accessdate = 2007-10-22 ] The book appears fifth on the ALA's list of the ten most challenged books of 21st century (2000–2005). [ cite web | title = Harry Potter tops list of most challenged books of 21st century | publisher = American Library Association | url = http://www.ala.org/ala/pressreleases2006/september2006/harrypottermostchallenge.cfm | accessdate = 2008-06-14] It is one of the ten books most frequently banned from high schooland junior high school librariesand classrooms. [Braxton, p. 5]
There has been one film version of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", which aired on April 28, 1979 and was filmed in
Vicksburg, Mississippi. Angelou and Leonora Thuna wrote the screenplay and it was directed by Fielder Cook. Constance Good played young Maya; also appearing in this made for TVmovie was Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosley, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, and Madge Sinclair. [cite news | last = Erickson | first = Hal | title = I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979) | work = New York Times | url = http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/24064/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/overview | accessdate = 2008-07-17] There were two scenes in the movie that differed from events described in the book. Angelou adds a scene between Maya and Uncle Willie after the Joe Louisfight; he expresses his feelings of redemption after Louis has defeated a white opponent. [Lupton, p. 59] Angelou presents her eighth grade graduation differently in the film as well. In the book, Henry Reed delivers the valedictoryspeech and leads the black audience in the Negro national anthem, but in the movie, Maya does. [Lupton, p. 64]
* Angelou, Maya (1969). "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings". New York:
Random House. ISBN 0-375-50789-2
* Arensberg, Liliane K. (1999). "Death as metaphor for self". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook", Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
* Baisnée, Valérie (1994). "Gendered resistance: The autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame and Marguerite Duras". Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-0109-7
* Bertolino, James (1996). "Maya Angelou is three writers". In "Modern critical interpretations: Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings", Harold Bloom, ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-4773-3
* Bloom, Harold. (2004). "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings". New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-7562-1
* Braxton, Joanne M. (1999). "Symbolic geography and psychic landscapes: A conversation with Maya Angelou". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook", Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
* Braxton, Joanne M. (2004). "Black autobiography". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings", Harold Bloom, ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-7562-1
* Burgher, Mary (1979). "Images of self and race in the autobiographies of black women". In "Sturdy Black Bridges", Roseann P. Bell, et al, ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. ISBN 0-3851-3347-2
* Cullinan, Bernice E. & Diane Goetz Person, eds. "Angelou, Maya". In " The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature". Continuum International Publishing Group (2003). ISBN 0-8264-1778-7.
* Foerstel, Herbert N. (2002). "Banned in the U.S.A.: A reference guide to book censorship in schools and public libraries". Westport, Connecticut:
Greenwood Press. ISBN 1-5931-1374-9
* King, Debra Walker. (1998). "Deep talk: Reading African American literary names". Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0-813918-52-9
* Lauret, Maria (1994). "Liberating literature: Feminist fiction in America". New York:
Routledge. ISBN 0-4150-6515-1
* Lupton, Mary Jane (1998). "Maya Angelou: A critical companion". Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30325-8
* McPherson, Dolly A. (1990). "Order out of chaos: The autobiographical works of Maya Angelou". New York: Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 0-820411-39-6
* McPherson, Dolly A. (1999). "Initiation and self-discovery". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook", Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
* Moore, Opal (1999). "Learning to live: When the bird breaks from the cage". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook", Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
* Smith, Sidonie Ann (2004). "Angelou's quest for self-acceptance". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings", Harold Bloom, ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-7562-1
* Vermillion, Mary (1999). "Reimbodying the self: Representations of rape in "Incidents in the life of a slave girl" and "I know why the caged bird sings". In "Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook", Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
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