I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Title Meaning

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

The title of Maya Angelou's autobiography, ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,'' is a metaphor for her own life. Learn about getting back up, poetry in action, and how someone can still sing in adversity. Updated: 01/12/2022

Getting Back Up

When two boxers enter the ring, they approach with months of training and preparation behind them. They suit up, don the gloves and enter the match against an opponent who has also worked and sacrificed for the fight ahead.

Then, bam! One fighter goes down - a blow to the face leaving him dazed and weak. He gets back up, shakes it off, and keeps going. Then, pow! Another blow, another fighter falls to the floor of the ring. Yet, he staggers to his feet and manages to keep going.

That's sort of the image we see in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, written by Maya Angelou. In this instance, you have a persistent little bird who struggles against the source of his oppression (the cage itself), but gets up, tries again, and pushes forward.

Let's look at the significance of the title Angelou chose and what it means to her personally and her writing specifically.

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  • 0:05 Getting Back Up
  • 1:09 Poetry in Action
  • 3:22 Still Singing
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Poetry in Action

When Maya Angelou was looking for a title for her autobiography, she turned to none other than one of her own favorite writers: poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In his poem, titled Sympathy, about a bruised and caged bird longing to be free, the line ''I know why the caged bird sings,'' is repeated multiple times. Here's a glimpse at a portion of the poem:

''I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings -
I know why the caged bird sings.''

The context of Dunbar's poem concerns a caged bird that continually throws itself up against the bars of its cage in search of its freedom, all the while singing as it struggles. For Angelou, the image of a caged bird serves as a metaphor for her own life. A metaphor is a comparison between two things; in this case the confined bird struggling to overcome its captivity is symbolic of Angelou's personal struggles with a number of things, including racism, abuse, oppression, and poverty. It is those issues that created a symbolic cage that wrapped itself around Angelou, even from an early age.

In the book, Angelou details numerous incidents that shaped her upbringing, such as:

  • Being harassed as a child for the color of her skin
  • Having to protect a family member from the Ku Klux Klan
  • Enduring sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend
  • Experiencing homelessness after a domestic incident
  • Questioning her sexuality, which led to an unplanned pregnancy

All of these situations and more are detailed in Angelou's autobiography, and all serve as a form of captivity that envelopes the author.

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