I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a novel by Maya Angelou, where she writes about her childhood and her experiences while growing up. This non-fiction novel illustrates Maya Angelou’s childhood, being tossed around by her parents, and having to experience different cultures. Maya struggles particularly in finding friends, she is reserved, and will only open up to Bailey, her brother. Maya moves a couple of times to different places, which may contribute to her not having friends. The novel revolves around Maya Angelou, Bailey, and her grandmother, evolving through life from being a child to a teenager. This novel is set in the “South”, in America.
Maya Angelou describes what her life with her grandmother is like while constantly being discriminated against her race. She then found her father, and he leaves Maya and Bailey off to their mother’s house. There, the mother’s boyfriend rapes Maya. After suffering from psychological shock, Maya then moves back to her grandmother’s. As a teenager Maya gets nervous about her sexual identity and tries to discover it. Through these harsh times, the naïve and softhearted Maya grows to become a strong, independent woman.
A major theme in this book is about God. Seen in, “If there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakeable God.” (23) Maya’s grandma is a firm believer of God, and since Maya moves in with her, she forces Maya to go to church every Sunday. Even through all the trials and tribulations, Maya still believes and has faith in this “Unshakeable God.” Through all her sadness and pain, she never questions or second-guesses the existence of a Good God. Moreover, with Maya’s grandmother’s ceaseless physical and mental support, Maya can withstand anything. Another prominent theme in this novel is love. Especially love among siblings, such as Bailey and Maya. This is how Maya describes Bailey, “His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool. And yet he loved me.” (22) Bailey is the perfect big brother, he takes care of Maya because he feels responsible to replace their absent parents, he defends her when people compare Maya to Bailey, and he provides her with emotional support. However, growing up Bailey starts to change. He becomes more private, and he doesn’t talk as much. Maya gets very worried, but she gives him some space anyway.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a title based on a Maya Angelo’s poem. The poem is about racial discrimination, similar to the plot of the novel. This is how Maya describes the Whitefolks, “These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren’t considered folks. They were Whitefolks.” (26) All the “folks” or “Southern Blacks” are to address all “Whitefolks” with Mister, missus, or miss. They aren’t allowed to greet them informally such as calling them by name.
The caged bird that has been appearing throughout the book is a symbol for the Southern Blacks. As mentioned in a note by Maya at the beginning of the novel, “… and all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their song.” The bird is trapped, and confined in the cage of racism. Even so, the bird keeps on singing, the bird keeps on striving to survive. Singing is the only way for the bird to project its opinion in a society where whitefolks are in thrall to the Southern Black or the bird.
The tone of this book is sad, yet confident and strong. Sad, because of all the tragedy Maya has to go through, and yet strong because of how much faith she has, and how she never loses hope. Often, the tune is in a singsong tune. This is shown through
“What you looking at me for?
Didn’t come to stay . . .” (1)
This must be because Maya Angelou is a poet first before a novelist, and she uses her poems in this novel. Furthermore, Her artistic journey is fully depicted in I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing, including how she fell in love with Shakespeare.
Personally, I found the novel a bit tedious at the beginning; because of the confusion I had at first. When the plot started progressing, I found it a little more interesting. However, the description of the rape scene was a bit too much for me, since I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined a child being sexually assaulted. My favorite part of the book is Maya’s experience as a teenager, as it entirely depicts the bewilderment, and curiosity of being at that age. Maya remains tough in the confusing years of becoming a teenager, even after all the things she experienced. I recommend this book to all people who are looking for inspiration in their tough time. Especially those who are looking for hope, and for those who think that they can’t take the curveball life throws at them anymore.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Themes." Shmoop. Web. 28 Nov. 2013. .