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Literature / I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 autobiographical book by Maya Angelou, detailing her life from age three to seventeen.

Maya and her brother, Bailey, are raised by their paternal Grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Arkansas for four years until their father, Bailey Johnson, takes them to live with their mother, Vivian Johnson, briefly in St. Louis. After Maya is raped by her mother's boyfriend, they return to Stamps before going to San Francisco to spend the rest of the book when Maya is thirteen.

A Made-for-TV Movie adaptation was made in 1979, starring Diahann Carroll as Vivian, Esther Rolle as Momma, Ruby Dee as Grandmother, and Constance Good as Maya.

This story provides examples of:

  • Autobiography: Maya Angelou writes of her own childhood experiences and trauma.
  • Berserk Button: Cursing in front of or to Vivian, though this is told through two past incidents and is not actually done in the book itself.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Why Maya doesn't tell anyone she was raped? Because Mr Freeman threatens to kill her brother if she does. The other reason is that she doesn't understand what exactly happened, or why it's so bad.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: The central image. It represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and misogyny.
    • Angelous would later publish a poem, titled, "Caged Bird", with this same theme:
      The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
      of things unknown but longed for still
      and his tune is heard on the distant hill
      for the caged bird sings of freedom.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • When the children are in Saint Louis, Maya remarks that even though she liked comic books, she found the Kathmejer kids in them too smart alecky.
    • No one really cares about the Japanese being interned, and Maya has to explain in the story why no one raised a fuss.
  • Disappeared Dad: Unlike in most examples, Maya's dad lives with her mom, but she and her brother were raised for years by their paternal family in the south.
  • Dumb Struck: In the aftermath of her rape Maya is rendered mute for six years by her guilt at having told on Mr. Freeman, feeling that it was her speaking that caused his murder.
  • Establishing Character Moment: For both Maya and the audience, the first gift Maya received from her Dad was his photograph, with the narration lampshading it as something she find "typical" from him in later years.
  • In-Series Nickname: Angelou's real first name is Marguerite, but when she was younger Bailey introduced her as "My" or "Maya", as in "my sister". Considering she is better known and signs her books as Maya Angelou, it can come as a surprise to some that her real name is Marguerite.
  • Missing Mom: Maya's mom, before she sends her children to live with her.
  • Parental Abandonment: Chapter One starts with Maya and Bailey arriving in Stamps after their parents sent them there following the divorce.
  • Parental Substitute: Ms. Henderson becomes this to the children, to the point where they call her "mom".
  • Roman à Clef: The book is largely autobiographical.
  • Shout-Out: The book's title is actually a Shout-Out to the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, "Sympathy", where he empathizes with caged birds.
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
    I know why the caged bird sings!
  • Some of My Best Friends Are X: As the con men Red Leg and Just Black scam a crooked white man out of $40,000, the mark (who thinks he's scamming them) swears that "Some of his best friends were colored people."
  • Southern Belle: Mrs. Bertha Flowers is a (relatively) modern example, being referred to as "the aristocrat of Black Stamps"
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Inverted with Maya and her dad. Maya describes her brother, father, and especially her mom as beautiful, but herself as more plain and ugly.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Momma told Maya to cross her legs and never show anyone her pocketbook.