Maya Angelou’s autobiography of her childhood isn’t written as a poem, but her prose, subjects, and themes intertwine into a twisted web of unity that paints a poetic picture in the minds of those that consume it.
From the first page of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou grabs your hand and leads you throughout her childhood as a young, black, girl living in the South, furiously pointing at moments and memories that have shaped her into the author she has become. In the 1930s, the United States was madly suffering from racial segregation, and Stamps, Arkansas, the setting for the beginning of the book, was no different. Although this little town is not the location for the entire book, it is the one that Angelou grows up in, the one that shows her how she must live in a world where one race was valued over her own. Stamps act as a microcosm for the greater issues of the country, and Angelou, as a child, has to experience the threat of the KKK and the dangerous disrespect with which white people were treating her family and friends. Her story continues in other parts of the United States like St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, but still, she cannot escape poverty, injustice, and oppression.
As a contrast to the horrors of the outside world, Angelou finds solace in reading. She falls in love with Shakespeare, and her ability to read, understand, and explore literature at such a young age breaks the misconceptions that poor, black people, especially women, were not able to better themselves through education. Angelou was surrounded by these racist stereotypes throughout her entire childhood, but the very act of writing this book, and many other astounding works, proves that these barriers can be taken down. This is where Angelou weaves the metaphor of the caged bird that she introduces in her title. “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is the first line of the third stanza of a poem called “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem is about a bird locked in a cage, and its attempts to escape are met with blood and pain and scars, and yet the bird continues to fight for his freedom. This image is seen throughout Angelou’s young life: her youth was filled with the unjust confinements of racism, sexism, abuse, and destitution, but she continues to sing, to fight, to live, to write.
Unfortunately, the painful memories of Angelou’s past still accompany the lives of so many Americans today. Stories like Angelou’s, however, give a voice to the voiceless, and perhaps one day, the caged bird will be able to sing without bars, blood, or scars.