Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Poetry

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  • 0:05 The Story of Maya Angelou
  • 1:12 Maya's Early Life
  • 2:58 Maya on the Move
  • 6:13 Maya Angelou as Poet
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' is the autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou. While the story is often difficult to read, it shows how a strong person can overcome difficult obstacles and achieve great things. Learn more about the inspiring life story of one of the country's greatest writers.

The Story of Maya Angelou

Most people probably think of Maya Angelou as the nice lady who reads poems at presidential inaugurations and other auspicious events. When you hear the name Maya Angelou, you probably think of someone who looks like this.

Maya Angelou
Elder Maya

It might be hard to imagine her as someone who looked like this.

Early photo of Maya Angelou
Maya Young

It's probably even harder to imagine her living in a community of homeless teenagers in L.A. or getting a job as the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco when she was just 15 years old, but it's these challenging experiences in her early life that likely led her to write such rich and emotionally poignant poems and stories.

One of those stories is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1969 autobiography of Angelou's early years and her first published book (though she had previously appeared on stage and record). Although Caged Bird is highly regarded for its literary qualities, it's also a true story of Angelou's life, and so it makes for an easy way to understand her struggles growing up. So let's turn to that book now. Remember, although by convention we talk about literature in the present tense, the stuff we're about to mention actually happened to the real Maya Angelou.

Maya's Early Life

While no one's life is without its challenges, it seems like a young Maya (short for Marguerite) had to deal with challenge after challenge from a very early age. When she was just three years old, she and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandparents after their parents got divorced. Divorce is never easy on kids, but the sense of rejection and abandonment Maya and Bailey felt is especially profound.

In addition to this, Maya's a young, black girl growing up in the town of Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s, and Maya and Bailey experience the hurtful effects of racism in almost every aspect of their social life - whether it's observing the horror of the Ku Klux Klan or just enduring insulting everyday behavior, like a white person calling Maya 'Mary' instead of her actual name.

Maya is filled with a sense of inferiority in comparison to the white girls in her town, believing herself to be uglier and just generally less competent than her white counterparts. Her brother, Bailey, a more well-adjusted and confident kid, often sticks up for his sister when others attack her.

Eventually, when Maya's about eight, their father reappears seemingly out of the blue and brings the kids to live with their mother in St. Louis. While this might seem like an improvement for the kids, it quickly proves not to be. Their mom, Vivian, works in casinos and is taken up with a man the kids call Mr. Freeman, who will eventually rape a young Maya. Freeman stands trial and is found guilty, only to end up brutally murdered, most likely by some members of Maya's family or someone acting on their behalf.

If this seems like a series of events that would traumatize an already fragile young woman, it's because it is. Following Freeman's murder, Maya becomes consumed with feelings of guilt (which we as readers may think is unnecessary since she did nothing wrong) and is only able to talk to Bailey. The two kids will eventually be shipped back to Stamps to live with their grandmother.

While Maya continues to be hurt by the racism that permeates the region, she also begins to take comfort in the sense of community she finds in her church. A turning point in the novel is when the African-American community in Stamps rallies together to listen to Joe Louis, an African-American boxer, take down a white opponent in a big fight. Though the shared victory conveys a sense of optimism and feels symbolic, it by no means indicates an end to the racial prejudice of the region and of the time. Maya personally experiences humiliation when a white dentist refuses to treat her.

World Boxing Champion Joe Louis
Louis Joe

Maya on the Move

Maya is enduring an internal struggle as well. Her rape and Freeman's murder clearly haunt her, and she's still not really speaking to people. Things begin to look up for her when she meets a woman named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a wealthy, black woman in the town of Stamps. She takes Maya under her wing and fosters a love of reading and books in Maya. Anyone who has found solace in literature can understand how valuable what Mrs. Flowers did was, and the positive effect it has on Maya is considerable.

Eventually, their grandmother (whom the kids call Momma) decide that the South isn't a safe place for young, black children to grow up, and once she is able to afford it, sends them to live with their mom out in California. This time, their mother, Vivian, is in a relationship with a good man, who Maya calls Daddy Clidell. Though not a highly educated man, Daddy Clidell is a stable adult and a real father figure to Maya and Bailey, something the kids never really had before.

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