I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings



Cover of this title
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou

This coming-of-age autobiography by award-winning author Maya Angelou features a memoir of racism, trauma, identity and hope. The title refers to the first line of the third stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (1899), which reflected the perspective of a caged bird’s longing for freedom and its wish to escape its prison. As Dunbar’s poem, Angelou’s fictional autobiography illustrates the struggle for freedom and equality in the American South, which at this time was governed by the Jim Crow Laws. Beginning on Maya Angelou’s third birthday, the story follows her empowering transformation from an oppressed child to a confident woman at seventeen. The story depicts sexual assault, racial discrimination and segregation, as well as family-related issues, love, self-acceptance and personal growth through the eyes of “My”.

Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of seven autobiographies. Teaching this coming-of age-story should be accompanied by the poetic works of the author, which feature similar topics and intertextual references (e.g. “Caged Bird”). Her works are suitable for interdisciplinary teaching projects on racism and segregation and can be related to current cases of police violence against people of colour in the US or the Black Lives Matter protest movement. An easy-to-read version of the autobiography accessible for intermediate learners is available as well.

· · 1969

Critical edition

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Little Brown, 1984. 320 pp., ISBN 9780860685111

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In favour of this entry

  • Addresses current affairs
  • Award-winning
  • Classic
  • Explores historical contexts
  • Gender equality
  • Interdisciplinary or cross-curricular teaching
  • Silenced voices
  • Students can identify with the text

Adapted as

  • Audiobook
  • Easy-reading edition
  • Film
  • Play
  • Poem