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Sometimes, a cage doesn’t have literal bars.

That’s part of the message behind Maya Angelou’s book titled, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ In this lesson, we’ll explore the meaning of the title itself.

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Getting Back Up

When two boxers enter the ring, they approach with months of training and preparation behind them. They suit up, don the gloves and enter the match against an opponent who has also worked and sacrificed for the fight ahead.

Then, bam! One fighter goes down – a blow to the face leaving him dazed and weak. He gets back up, shakes it off, and keeps going. Then, pow! Another blow, another fighter falls to the floor of the ring. Yet, he staggers to his feet and manages to keep going.That’s sort of the image we see in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, written by Maya Angelou.

In this instance, you have a persistent little bird who struggles against the source of his oppression (the cage itself), but gets up, tries again, and pushes forward.Let’s look at the significance of the title Angelou chose and what it means to her personally and her writing specifically.

Poetry in Action

When Maya Angelou was looking for a title for her autobiography, she turned to none other than one of her own favorite writers: poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In his poem, titled Sympathy, about a bruised and caged bird longing to be free, the line ”I know why the caged bird sings,” is repeated multiple times. Here’s a glimpse at a portion of the poem:”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.”The context of Dunbar’s poem concerns a caged bird that continually throws itself up against the bars of its cage in search of its freedom, all the while singing as it struggles. For Angelou, the image of a caged bird serves as a metaphor for her own life.

A metaphor is a comparison between two things; in this case the confined bird struggling to overcome its captivity is symbolic of Angelou’s personal struggles with a number of things, including racism, abuse, oppression, and poverty. It is those issues that created a symbolic cage that wrapped itself around Angelou, even from an early age.In the book, Angelou details numerous incidents that shaped her upbringing, such as:

  • Being harassed as a child for the color of her skin
  • Having to protect a family member from the Ku Klux Klan
  • Enduring sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend
  • Experiencing homelessness after a domestic incident
  • Questioning her sexuality, which led to an unplanned pregnancy

All of these situations and more are detailed in Angelou’s autobiography, and all serve as a form of captivity that envelopes the author.

Still Singing

Yet, despite the weight of the bars of oppression against her, Angelou still finds a way to ”sing”, the other important word in the book’s title. Regardless of the situation, to Angelou being able to sing represents being able to rise above and overcome your circumstances. Angelou’s voice can be heard through her use of words. She fights back through the power of literature.

She rises again and again, banging against the bars of the cage like the bird in Dunbar’s poem.Though Angelou’s book is an autobiography, it is also meant to be symbolic of the oppression of racism, sexism, ageism, powerlessness, and abuses endured by millions of others. These types of societal problems become bars that imprison their victims. Through Angelou’s own testimony, she is encouraging other victims to sing by embracing their challenges, fighting back, never giving up, finding their voice, and discovering freedom.

Despite her challenges, and the challenges that will be faced by her readers, Angelou’s ”song” is one of empowerment and survival.

Lesson Summary

Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is titled after a line from ”Sympathy,” a poem written by one of her favorite authors, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the poem, Dunbar talks about the struggle of a caged bird, beating against the bars of its prison. The bird, though broken and battered, still carries a tune it sings as it pines for its freedom.

By using it as a metaphor for her own life, Angelou likens the bars of the bird’s cage to her own ”bars” of racism, abuse, and oppression. Her ”song” is her ability to survive, to rise up and be successful despite the adversity. For Angelou, that is obtained in numerous ways, not the least of which was through her writing. For those reading the book, the title is a reminder that even though you may be caged by problems or circumstances, you can still have a song in your heart.

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