I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Analysis & Themes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Analysis & Themes
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  • 0:04 Autobiographical Account
  • 0:41 Racism
  • 2:14 Self-Acceptance
  • 3:15 Belonging
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' is an autobiographical story of Maya Angelou's life. Facing racism, molestation, and teenage pregnancy, Maya learns to love herself and find her place in the world. In this lesson, we will look at some of the major themes from this story.

Autobiographical Account

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical account of Maya Angelou's childhood. After being abandoned by her parents, Maya and her brother, Bailey, move in with family in Stamps, Arkansas where the racial tension can be cut with a knife. The story shows Maya's personal journey as she works through her poor self-concept, unstable home life, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. Some of the critical themes of this story surround racism, self-acceptance, and belonging. The themes of a story are its most significant points. Let's find out more in our analysis of the story.


Maya and Bailey live with their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Henderson, whom they call Momma, and her disabled son, Willie. Although Willie faces a great deal of ridicule because of his handicap, Momma is well-respected as the owner of the only grocery store in the black part of town. Maya, whose full name is Marguerite Ann Johnson, remembers the sickly feeling that came over her with the sheriff stopped by to tell Momma,

Annie, tell Willie he'd better stay out of sight tonight. A crazy nigger assaulted a white lady today. Some of the boys'll be coming over here later.

Maya knew that meant the KKK would be looking for a black man to lynch and because of this nastiness, Uncle Willie had to hide in a vegetable bin under the potatoes and onions where he cried all night.

Throughout the novel, Maya is forced to hide the rage that grows inside her as black citizens live in constant fear of the KKK, work hard for incomprehensibly low wages, and are treated like second-class citizens at best. You've probably heard of segregated water fountains, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

Racism against blacks at the hands of whites is not the only type of discrimination that exists in this story though. When Marguerite's father takes her to Mexico, she remembers feeling afraid of the Mexican people for no reason. When the Japanese people in San Francisco suddenly disappear into internment camps during World War II, the black citizens think nothing about taking over their homes and businesses. Her point that you should take from this is that racism isn't--literally in some cases--a black and white issue.


From her earliest childhood memories, Maya considers herself ugly. She describes herself as having skinny legs, big feet, a gap between her teeth, kinky hair, and an oversized body. When she shows up at church with her faded old-lady dress on Easter Sunday, she imagines what it would be like to be a beautiful white girl,

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten?

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