Maya Angelou and Her Poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Maya Angelou was a writer and a well-known civil rights activist. She is known for her memoir, The Caged Bird Sings. Maya changed the world by fighting for what she believed in. She never gave up and was very positive. She cared for women rights, she was a teacher, she was an amazing poet, dancer, a director, a screenwriter, and an actress. Maya Angelou is still known today for her poems, her civil right movement and caring for women rights. Angelou has accumulated many awards and honors throughout her life, and it’s difficult to put a single label on her legacy. Charismatic and passionate, warm and wise, formidable without being forbidding, American author and poet Maya Angelou died last year aged 86. She was a role model and an activist who recorded and celebrated the experience of being Black in the United States.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri to Vivian and Bailey Johnson. Her parents divorced when she was three years old, and as a result Angelou moved around as a child. She was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas, and spent much of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. Maya Angelou has done many things in her life that no people would ever think of. When she first dropped out of high school she became the first Black cable car conductor in San Francisco. She has created 12 best-selling books, most of them autobiographies. Maya Angelou has traveled all over the world and done many jobs. She has also worked with Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1993 Maya Angelou read her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She has done many things, but she is widely known for being a great poet, writer, playwright, and teacher. She was treated with hand-me-down clothes from white women and she was made fun of. Her childhood was also filled sadness. At the young age of eight she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. This terrible ordeal sent her into four years of silence. She would only speak to her brother Bailey. It was during this time that she began reading and getting interested in poetry. She began to talk again because of a teacher that told her to express herself. When Maya started talking again it started a whole new world. Because of her four years of silence Maya got interested and learned to love poetry. This may have been the beginning of her fabulous career.

Angelou won a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School to study dance and drama. Although she dropped out briefly when she was fourteen to become the first female cable car conductor in San Francisco, she eventually returned to George Washington High School in San Francisco to graduate. Soon after graduation, Angelou gave birth to her first son, Clyde (later renamed Guy), and worked in restaurants to support her family. The second of her autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name (1974), begins when Angelou is seventeen, picking up where I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends. Gather Together in My Name portrays Angelou’s struggle for survival as a single black woman raising a young son. The mother to a son, Angelou mentored many “daughters,” some through her work, others personally like Winfrey, who said Angelou “moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.”

Never hesitant to speak her mind, Angelou passionately defended the rights of women, young people and the ignored. She effortlessly traversed the worlds of literature and activism, becoming a confidante to the original civil rights leaders, their successors and the current generation. “I’ve seen many things, I’ve learnt many things,” Angelou told the Associated Press in 2013. “I’ve certainly been exposed to many things and I’ve learnt something: I owe it to you to tell you.”

Reflecting on her time working alongside Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King as the Northern Coordinator for the movement, Angelou recalled that they speculated on the likelihood of America having a black president together and Angelou predicted that it would not happen in her lifetime. Overjoyed to be proven wrong, at the ripe age of 83 she was one of President Obama’s most ardent supporters, campaigning tirelessly for his election. She continued to speak out on a range of topics throughout her later life, from the polarizing nature of celebrating ‘Black History Month’, to the detrimental effect of black rappers using the ‘N’ word, and reflected on her own life, which was characterized by optimism despite adversity.

Angelou accredited much of her development as a writer to her childhood growing up in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas with her paternal grandmother. Back then it was a town ravaged by racial inequality, affording the young Angelou her first taste of the injustices she would spend a lifetime trying to right. Her grandmother was the only black store holder within a very segregated community, her store was thus a gathering point for the black people in the area. It was here that Angelou first witnessed the strength and spirit of the African-American community when it drew together.

This fueled her involvement with the Black Arts Movement, a highly influential New York-based artistic collective. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance before it, the Black Arts Movement developed after the assassination of Malcolm X and was associated with the Black Power Movement; it therefore embraced a more radical, militant aesthetic. Angelou was one of the seminal figures of this group, primarily involved in the Harlem Writers Guild, along with figures such as Amri Baraka and James Baldwin who together opened doors for greater African-American creativity and empowerment. The assertive nature of much of this creative output inspired later generations to express their outrage at social injustice through creative means. Maya Angelou’s contribution to American culture was recognized by President Obama when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor in 2011.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is arguably one of the most moving and eye opening poems ever written. Angelou also wrote an autobiography with this same title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is clear that this title had great significance to Angelou, as it was the title to her entire life story. In her autobiography, she talked about the struggle of being a black author and poet. She often felt that her words were not heard because of the color of her skin. She felt that in some ways, she was still experiencing slavery. Although African American people were free people in Angelou’s time, there were still many restrictions on them in society, making it so that many black Americans did not feel free at all.

This stanza is in stark contrast with the first. By using the word “but” to begin this stanza, the speaker prepares the reader for this contrast. Then she describes the “bird that stalks his narrow cage”. The tone is immediately and drastically changed from peaceful, satisfied, and joyful to one that is dark, unnerving, and even frustrating. She describes that this caged first “can seldom see through his bars of rage”. While the free bird gets to enjoy the full sky, the caged bird rarely even gets a glimpse of the sky. She claims that “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”. Text from her autobiography reveals that Angelou often felt this way in life. She felt restricted from enjoying the freedom that should have been her right as a human being. The speaker then reveals that these are the very reasons that the bird “opens his throat to sing”.

The author felt this way in her own life. She wrote and sang and danced because it was her way of expressing her longing for freedom. The poem reflects facts of the racial segregation or social discrimination in American society against the black people. Using the metaphors of caged and free birds, Maya Angelou has highlighted the nature of captivity and the importance of American ideals of freedom and liberty. There are two major themes in the poem. The first major theme is given in the first stanza which is freedom. It is given through the image of a free bird which goes wherever it wants, ranging from enjoyment on stream to soaring in the wind. The second theme is captivity that cripples the bird in the cage. This theme goes on in the third stanza and tries to state that the caged bird is forced to sing a song of freedom. Then the free bird again comes into view in the fourth stanza and enjoys life on trade winds, trees and in the width and breadth of the sky. Next stanzas describe the caged bird’s fear while it is trying to sing a tune for its freedom during its bondage.

Maya Angelou was a warrior who struggled all of her life with her womanhood. One of the most captivating features I found out regarding her personality trait was her ever-enduring strength. Even though after encountering so many problems in her life, she never gave up and kept on working hard for the prosperity of her life. I look up to Maya Angelou because I believe that she is a woman of strong character. She teaches us to pick ourselves up through hard times and never lose hope no matter how bad the situation might be.

Being discriminated against for who you are is one of the saddest things somebody can ever feel. She had been a victim of racism for a very long time but she fought back for it and never gave up. She broke the fences and raised her voice through her words. In her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, she uses the symbol of a bird trying to escape its cage as a sign of a person trying to get free himself from the state of racism. How beautifully she managed to spread her message!

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