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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Themes


As a coming-of-age story, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings revolves around the universal quests of young people to define themselves, to relate to a community of people, and to find unique identities in order to move into adulthood. However, the facts of Maya Angelou's life as an African American growing up in a particular time and place require the addition of the overarching theme of racism.


The theme of racism is woven throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As young Maya struggles for self-acceptance and self-confidence in the 1930s South, her efforts are complicated by racism and segregation. It's difficult for her to achieve self-confidence when racist attitudes and policies tell her that, for reasons she doesn't understand, she's considered somehow inferior because of the color of her skin. This defies reason for a child trying to make sense of the world. It hurts for Maya to see her grandmother not being treated with the respect due to her. As she grows older, she sees more and more how racism forces African American workers into poverty and debt. The injustices of segregation policies cause Maya herself to develop racist attitudes toward white people. The shedding of these attitudes in favor of an appreciation of the value of tolerance marks an important step in Maya's coming of age.

Names and Identity

When she's a very young child seeking acceptance, Maya wants to reject her identity as an African American. After a few years with her grandmother, Maya identifies with her African American family and community. Proud of her success in school, Maya's regard for speaking "proper English" suggests she wants to be identified as an educated person. When, at age 10, she takes a job in a white woman's house, Maya refuses to allow the woman to give her a new name, indicating she's not going to allow someone else to determine her identity. Later, attending a white high school in California, Maya realizes she can no longer claim the identity of top student in the class. By pursuing the job of streetcar conductor in San Francisco, Maya shows she is self-confident enough to challenge the system of discrimination as a proud African American.

Power of Words

When Maya is dealing with abandonment as a child, she turns to books for solace and companionship, sharing her love of reading with her brother, Bailey. Maya attributes so much power to words that when she's eight years old she comes to believe her words cause the death of her rapist. Fearing that evil will escape her if she speaks, harming others, she becomes silent and withdrawn for almost one year. Mrs. Flowers, a kind, insightful neighbor, taps into Maya's love of books to draw her back into the world. At a revival meeting, Maya is impressed by the power of words to bring hope and the willingness to persevere to the downtrodden, overworked field workers. However, she questions whether the rousing sermons are serving the right purpose; perhaps the workers would be better off if they fought for their rights.


Maya starts out life with a feeling of displacement when she is sent to live with her paternal grandmother in the segregated country town of Sparks, Arkansas. She struggles to fit in. She loves and respects her grandmother and Uncle Willie, but Maya feels like a bit of an outsider in the community. She yearns for more intellectual fulfillment, and she doesn't fully relate to the strong role of religion in the community. At age seven, she's taken to a completely different situation in St. Louis. Her mother's raucous extended family, with its ties to the St. Louis underworld, is a far cry from the staid religiosity of Momma and Uncle Willie in Stamps. Going back to Stamps after her rape is a relief to Maya; it becomes a sort of cocoon in which she can heal. Her next move, to California to be with her mother, ultimately brings her the sense of community she'd been searching for. San Francisco is the first place where she really feels at home, and when her mother remarries, Maya becomes part of a "real" family for the first time. Maya's experience of living with the homeless teens opens her eyes to the importance of acceptance and tolerance in any community.

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Questions for Themes

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