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IKnow Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angleou A Critical Response

Updated on October 22, 2009

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - A Critical Review

 Maya Angelou’s style of writing in her narrative memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is musical or poetic.  It has a soft, rhythmic pulse which is mesmerizing, even somehow comforting after reading about the tragedies encountered in her life. Her character descriptions make the important people in her life seem just as real to us as they were to her.  She references the atrocities that were the stuff of racism.  When reading Angelou, you know, just as Maya did, that life goes on.  How else could the blacks and other oppressed people of Angelou’s childhood times (1930’s) have endured?  They endured and life went on.

          Marguerite and her brother, Bailey, suffered the indignity and pain of being cast off by their divorced parents.  They had to learn how to deal with the pain and feelings of abandonment.

     More of Marguerite’s strength comes through after the molestations and rape by Mr. Freeman and during her resulting illness, his trial, and even when he was killed.  Marguerite felt responsible for his death; but, as depicted in Angelou’s style, life went on.  When Marguerite chose to refrain from talking for a time due to the shock of the rape, that act showed her strength and conviction.  It was her way of coping and her resolve was not to talk to anyone other than Bailey – and Maya did not talk until she was good and ready.  With the help of a friend, Mrs. Flowers, Maya learned to use the time she spent in the library and her love of reading for comfort.  She learned to use the words she read as her voice.   Is this why the caged bird sings?

      When Maya was still a child, she worked for a white woman who refused to call Maya by her correct name.  Maya eventually resisted this insult which took away her individuality.  In a rage

against this type of identity loss which black people generally suffered,  she broke the employer’s heirloom dishes.  Are the atrocities of her life, her loss of identity and the resulting rage why the caged bird sings?

    Maya Angelou’s tenderness may come from being a woman; the strength and courage conveyed in her narrative emanates from within her heart and soul as a testimony to her own experiences.  The reader can feel that strength, especially from Marguerite and Momma as well as from Bailey and Uncle Willie.  As a young woman finding her way in life, Marguerite defies racism by being the first black conductor of a streetcar in San Francisco. 

      Maya Angelou shows great dignity in her moving story where she confronts her own life.  Writing the book as a mature adult has given her time to step back from the emotions and write her story in an extraordinarily dignified tone.  It is at times tragic.  It is at times funny.

     Upon opening the book the reader meets Marguerite as she describes the mortification of wetting her pants as she ran out of church.  It is tragically embarrassing to a child, but the reader can’t help but chuckle at the situation . . . maybe having been in a similar situation as a child his/herself.  The incident becomes a mere trifle in comparison to the more grave tragedies Marguerite faces in her life.

     As a young woman Marguerite lives in a junkyard for a while.  She gets pregnant while still in high school.  She is afraid of her baby at first.  With the help of her mother, Vivian, she finds her way with her baby.  Through all her suffering and all her insecurities, she finds the strength within to cope with daily indignities. . . just as other black women before her have done.  Momma had been a strong moral force in Maya’s upbringing who taught her how to stand strong against such indignities . . . but without risking her life by angering white people.

   Angelou’s writing is reflective of her life and the difficulties she suffered as a young black child.  Children feel at times that simply because they are young, they have no control over their

lives.  As a testimony to the trials of growing up as a Negro facing racial and gender discrimination in a rural community in the 1930’s, Angelou reflected, “It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life.  It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance

of defense.  I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other.  A pyramid of flesh with the white folks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks

and spirituals sticking out of their mouths.  The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks.  The French should choke to death on the Louisiana

Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails.  As a species, we were an abomination.  All of us.”  Rather astute for a child, it shows the thoughts and feelings of a girl who would later be able to put into beautiful autobiographical works all that she had survived.    

 Angelou, Maya:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).


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    • Chatkath profile image

      Kathy 3 years ago from California

      I know why the caged bird sings was the first poem I ever read by Maya Angelou and remains my favorite. She is an inspiration to all women !!

      Thanks for sharing her work. I enjoyed your portral of her strength and genius.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 5 years ago from Southern Clime

      Great Hub! Maya is one of my favorite writers. I had the opportunity to attend one of her poetry readings a few decades ago.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • msdee115 profile image

      msdee115 6 years ago from Stone Mountain, GA

      This was the first book I can remember reading as a young girl that meant something to me. It was my first inspiration to become a writer. Toni Morrison, my second and most inspiring. Thank you for that well written hub!