Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson. When she was three years old, her parents divorced, and Angelou and her brother, Bailey, Jr., were sent to live with their grandmother Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. Mrs. Henderson operated a general store, and the children’s lives revolved around the members of the all-black community who gathered at the store to shop and talk. When Angelou was seven, she and Bailey returned to live with their mother in St. Louis, where Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This traumatic event and the court proceedings that followed caused Angelou to withdraw from everyone except Bailey, and led her mother to return the children to Stamps. After graduating from the eighth grade, Angelou, along with Bailey, rejoined her mother in San Francisco and stayed there for the remainder of her teenage years. She dropped out of school, worked as a conductor on the streetcar system, became pregnant, returned to school, and graduated just before the birth of her son, Guy Johnson.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiographical story of the pain that accompanies a young girl’s loss of innocence. Feeling rejected by the totally segregated society of Arkansas in the 1930s and by her mother who deserts her at age three, Maya must also struggle with a troublesome body image and feelings of sexual inadequacy. She even blames herself for the death of the man who rapes her. Until she gives birth to a son, Guy, Maya feels that she has little or no control of her own destiny. Once she learns to accept Guy, and the events leading to her pregnancy, she begins to feel less like the “caged bird” of the book’s title, less imprisoned by her race and gender. She finds freedom in self-expression and begins to take control of her life.
The book begins in 1931 with Maya’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds through the end of World War II. Events of great social significance-from the misery of the Great Depression to the world heavyweight championship of the great black prize fighter, Joe Louis, an event that symbolized the ability of black people to compete in a white-dominated world-occur during this time period. As Maya grows up, the geographic setting moves from rural Stamps, Arkansas, to the metropolis of St. Louis, and on to San Francisco during a time when its Japanese residents were being interned as war prisoners.
Angelou shapes the narrative of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with two traditional themes of autobiography: the triumph over obstacles and the search for identity. The narrator learns that she can rise above adversity to transcend the “tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and the black lack of power.” In addition to these themes run two parallel and sometimes contrasting themes: the black gospel tradition represented by Grandmother Henderson and the black blues represented by Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. The gospel tradition emphasizes a reliance on religion and quiet stoicism in the face of trouble; the blues tradition invokes a spirit of defiance and free expression.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins as a narrative of a young black girl growing up in the care of her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s. The story proceeds chronologically, following Maya’s experiences in St. Louis and California, but is not organized with connecting chapters. Individual sections stand alone as self-contained short stories, and Angelou skillfully blends dual points of view-that of the child Maya and that of the adult Angelou-within these units. Hence Angelou assumes two personae: Maya’s voice describes in sometimes poignant terms incidents in her childhood and adolescence; and Angelou’s adult voice, introspective and objective, makes general observations or editorializes.
Segregation was so complete in the 1930s “that most black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like,” and Angelou herself “never remembers that whites were really white.” In Angelou’s account, a patriarchal white community is located only a half mile from Momma’s general store-where Maya’s family lives and where blacks trade and congregate-but the segregated black community of Stamps constitutes a quasi ghetto.
1. What does Maya think about her grandmother’s religious beliefs? Why is the church so important to Momma?
1. Research Joe Louis’s rise to prominence in the boxing world, and the difficulties he faced as the first black champion prize fighter.
The success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings encouraged Angelou and her publishers to publish four additional autobiographical novels that cover the years following the birth of her son. These works have been received with the same enthusiasm as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and continue to explore themes of racism and religion.