A title often conveys a deeper meaning of the books content. The title of Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was chosen to relate to a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The cage is a metaphor for what is holding Maya back. In the metaphor, she is a caged bird who is unable to solve her problems but still sings of hope. Maya is presented with many struggles in her early life that she doesn’t have the ability to overcome. She is introduced as a small girl in a town where she constantly lives in a displaced mindset. She battles to make connections and to belong. Growing up Maya doesn’t relate well to many people. This lack of acceptance takes away her chance to have a true childhood and pieces of her begin to fall apart. Angelou writes of a poem that she had to memorize, “What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay…” (1). This opening line demonstrates the problems that she faces and how she fights them. This is the definition of Maya’s childhood and her cage. She believes that she is in a “black ugly dream” from which she cannot escape. The idea of this ugly dream and the fact that she “didn’t come to stay” foreshadow many of the events in Maya’s life. Her personality and strength help her fight through the battles that she faces. Maya is a caged bird who “sings of freedom”.
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In the book, Maya fights her cage in many ways. This battle can be related to the poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy.” Dunbar wrote, “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars/ And they pulse again with a keener sting” (Dunbar 12-13). She has been through so much yet still new scars are created. Maya’s scars would include her inability to fit into her family and into the white world. She cannot relate to her mother, father, and brother because they all have the same trait that she does not: beauty. In the book, she is introduced in a purple Easter dress that she believes will make her suddenly turn into a beautiful white woman with curly blond hair that nobody would recognize. This is Maya’s way of expressing that she believes that to achieve beauty, she must first be white. When the dress fails to change her appearance, Maya is distraught. Angelou writes, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat” (Angelou 4). This shows the reader that Maya is aware that she does not fit in with her family or the white world. Knowing this, She tries to find someone that she can connect with. The first connection she makes was with Mr. Freeman, a man who had worked for her mother. This is not to say that this connection was a good one. It ended poorly when he takes advantage of her. Maya at the time had known very little about sex, leading her to believe that Mr. Freeman was only showing fatherly affection. She later realizes that what she had thought was a gentle, kind action was and is a crime and reduces the amount of trust she has for adults. This experience confines Maya’s ability to develop because she does not understand why an adult that she thought she could trust would hurt a child in that way. Understanding of her displacement gives her more strength as her story progresses.
Maya is a scarred, caged bird, but because of her strength, she still has the ability to sing. Angelou also wrote a poem entitled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” with inspiration from Paul Laurence Dunbar. In this poem, Angelou writes, “and his tune is heard/ on the distant hill/ for the caged bird/ sings of freedom” (“Caged Bird” 34-37). Maya overcomes many struggles in her life and many times does she cry out for help but despite her lack of support she still has strength. Maya’s post-rape trauma was expressed through her silence. This is Maya’s way of crying out for help. In the opening line of the book, Maya wishes that she had come to stay, but since all of her connections, attempts for change, and cries for help have failed, her expectations are low. Despite this, she still reaches out to people. The reader clearly sees Maya’s ability to maintain strength when she visits her father. Angelou writes, “Explained that I didn’t like her because she was mean […] he laughed, and when I added she didn’t like me […] he laughed harder” (Angelou 229). This demonstrates Maya’s disconnect from her father. The way he reacts to the serious discussions shows the reader that he doesn’t understand Maya. Even though he constantly, yet unintentionally, pushes her away, Maya still has hope for her relationship with her father and gives him a multitude of chances during their trip in Mexico. When he abandons Maya, she feels distraught and confused as to why her father would leave her but still refuses to give up. If she had truly given up, she would not have tried so hard to get her father home safely. As Maya’s determination and strength move forward, they become her song of freedom.
Maya’s determination to rise above and find strength in the challenges she faces is how she stands firm. In Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”, She writes, “You may shoot me with your words/ but still, like air, I’ll rise” (“Rise” 21-24). This poem, written years after the book, shows that Maya Angelou doesn’t let her inability to fit into her family and into the white world get ahold of her entire life. Instead she uses this poem to show growth and development. In the book Maya shows her development by having a child. Angelou writes, “Totally my possession, and I was afraid to touch him […] sat for hours by his bassinet and absorbed his mysterious perfection” (Angelou 288). Maya having a baby is sign of growth to the reader. She has finally attained the perfection that she had been searching for, though it does not come in the form of acceptance, Maya finds something that makes her feel important. As a result, she becomes a part of small two-person community where she knows that she is needed. Maya has finally found a way to open her cage and “sing of freedom”.
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