I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Symbols


The title is the only abstract symbol in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Other symbols are tangible objects from Maya Angelou's life that have an uncanny larger meaning in the story of her growth from childhood to adulthood.

The Caged Bird

The caged bird of the book's title symbolizes Maya, caged in by bars of racism, self-doubt, and lack of opportunities. In the Dunbar poem, "the caged bird sings for freedom," just as Maya seeks freedom to follow her dreams. The caged bird might also represent other characters, such as Uncle Willie, who struggles with his disability; or Daddy Bailey, who was never able to achieve the life he wanted for himself.

The Easter Dress

Young Maya views the Easter dress with the hope it will magically transform her into a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl who is loved and admired by everyone. It represents her lack of self-acceptance and foreshadows the struggle that's ahead of her.

The Blue Conductor's Suit

The streetcar conductor's blue suit represents Maya's attainment of self-acceptance. It signifies she can identify a role for herself in society, pursue it, and attain it. It also represents her pride in being an African American and in standing up for her rights.

The Doll

The doll is a symbol of Maya's early struggle with self-acceptance. It's also a symbol of her abandonment. A Christmas gift sent to her by her mother, whom she hasn't heard from in years, the doll makes Maya realize that her mother is a stranger to her. Maya has moved on from those early fantasies about being white, but her absent mother has no idea who Maya is now.

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