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.
Hoping to portray emotional reality, Angelou melds fact and fiction in her book. Angelou’s account of a white dentist who refuses to treat her because she is black actually took place, but Angelou names him “Dr. Lincoln” for symbolic emphasis. Dr. Lincoln represents the white establishment that unfairly discriminates on the basis of color, in effect mocking the emancipation statement issued by President Lincoln in 1863 proclaiming blacks free from bondage. This kind of literary technique, combined with Angelou’s lyrical prose, results in a powerful and poignant story of growing up black in America.