Literary Qualities

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.

Angelou’s prose is rich with sensuous imagery that captures the tastes, smells, and surroundings of her childhood. Her vivid re-creation of her experiences, enlivened by humor and colorful dialogue, pulls the reader into the text. Significant moments in Angelou’s life stand out with clarity. When Maya meets her mother face-to-face for the first time since she was three, Angelou allows the reader to feel the impact of Vivian’s presence: “My mother’s beauty literally assailed me. Her red lips (Momma said it was a sin to wear lipstick) split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked see-through clean.” In this brief description, Angelou also manages to convey conflict through her parenthetical reference to Momma, Vivian’s mother. She loves the glamour and beauty of her mother, but feels inclined to judge her because of her loyalty to Momma, who instilled in her grandchildren strict standards of behavior.

Most of the dialogue is written in standard English, but it occasionally includes realistic snatches of regional dialect and black English. When the point of view shifts from Maya, the child, to Angelou, the adult looking back, the language becomes less colorful and the tone less animated. When Angelou’s voice enters the narrative, her serious tone calls the reader’s attention to her underlying demand for black equality. For example, after relating the story of her struggle to obtain a job as a streetcar conductor, Angelou shifts narrative gears and directly addresses the reader: “The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste, and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.” In this passage Angelou seems to be asking for recognition not only of her struggle but of the struggle of all black American women. The “caged bird” of her title symbolizes all black women who, despite great adversity and oppression, live with dignity and strength; whether the “caged bird” sings the gospel hymns of Momma or the husky blues of Vivian, she learns to survive and to respect herself in the process.

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