Maya Angelou ‘s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” Free Essay Example

April 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

As famous American Essayist John D’Agata once asked, “Can we call any genre a ‘genre’ if, when we read it from different angles and under different shades of light, the differences between it and something else start becoming indistinguishable?” (“John D’Agata Quotes”). This seems exactly the right question to ask of Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This memoir describes Angelou’s transformation from a confused child into a successful adult, and it blurs the lines of genre just as D’Agata describes.

While I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings conforms to several structural, historical, and thematic qualities of black autobiographies, it deviates from the genre in two ways: It tackles themes previously felt by black authors to be too dangerous (or too likely to be suppressed by white editors), and it alters time and facts in ways more typical of a novel than a memoir, in order to convey the messages Angelou felt needed to be delivered.

Angelou maintains several organizational and thematic elements typical of African-American autobiography. For example, the book is a single-author, first-person narrative that celebrates black motherhood and condemns racism while highlighting the significance of family, independence, self-respect, and identity (Braxton 64). Although her style is neither entirely factual temporarily linear, her book is distinct within the genre of African-American autobiography, which typically censored or hid the truth for self-protection (Lupton 35). For instance, Angelou’s story began with fears of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan—both of which are typical themes of African-American autobiographies of that era—and ended in a way also typical of African-American autobiographies of the period, in that it is a “celebration of her personal freedom and of black cultural achievements in Africa and America” (Lupton 35).

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper


Deadline: 10 days left

Number of pages


Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

“You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy”

Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

But, her candor about race, sexism, and sexual assault is ahead of its time. In one anecdote, Angelou addresses several of those themes at once, as she asserts “the Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power” (Angelou 272). Prior to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, these realities were too dangerous to publish. In order to pass muster with white editors, earlier black authors avoided controversy by focusing on their individual experiences, such as in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Lupton 35). Where Douglass sought to focus on facts, names, and places, Angelou took a risk by surfacing deeper ideological truths and in so doing, exposes the reader both to history and universal morality through the lens of a particular black woman’s experience.

Angelou further bends the genre of autobiography by altering perspective, chronology, and even factual details in ways more reminiscent of fiction than memoir. While her own biographer, Dolly McPherson, insisted that “autobiography must be a presentation of truth—truth in characterization, truth in relationship to the world, truth in point of view” (Lupton 34), Angelou plainly believes these norms are more flexible. The first indication of this divergence comes in her narration: Angelou is simultaneously the narrator and the protagonist, permitting her to combine her own experiences with the experiences of three or four people to create a story “sufficiently strong to be written about” (Plimpton). This dual role allows for retrospective conclusions, such as how “childhood’s logic never asks to be proved” or how “growing up was not the painless process one would have thought it to be” (Angelou 101, 256).

She recreates a child’s perspective with the maturity of an adult narrator. Secondly, Angelou employs thematic organization rather than a time sequence, another quality usually associated with fiction, to unify chapters of her life based on lessons, rather than by time order. To discuss the themes of rape and racism with clarity, she rearranges the order of the actual events of her life and places the description and discussion of her rape seven chapters after the incident with the “powhitetrash” girls, even though her rape in fact had occurred three years earlier (Walker 82). Finally, she admits she “deviated from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth” and “fiddled with” specifics (Lupton 34). This venture outside of autobiography allows her to combine characters, overstate facts, and use literary devices artistically and to great effect. While everything in the book may not be chronologically—or even factually— “true,” her approach allows the transmittal of deeper and more-universal truths.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings transcends autobiographical convention by maintaining some traditional elements of African-American autobiographies while, when it suits her literary needs, abandoning others. The result is an unusually congruent, unified, and emotional autobiography that flows like a novel but remains heavily based on her own realities growing up. Writers often adhere to a single genre to form a relationship with the readers who recognize its patterns; genre confusion risks disorienting or even repelling readers. Angelou takes that risk, and it pays off. Rather than retaining readers through devotion to a single genre, she engages them with a compelling story and its deeper lessons. The best writers, and Angelou certainly is among them, cannot be contained by genre.


Read more