I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The bestselling first volume of Maya Angelou's serial autobiography inaugurated a new era of African American women's writing. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings contains many of the themes that would become central to feminist theory and practice in the 1980s. Taken from the first verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem “Sympathy”, the title articulates the woman writer's empowering recognition of her ability to sing her own song despite the cultural odds against her. “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” Angelou writes. “It is an unnecessary insult.”
Set mostly in Stamps, Arkansas, the work traces the events in the lives of Marguerite Johnson and her brother who are raised by their grandmother, Momma Henderson, the owner of a general store, and their crippled Uncle Willie. Angelou paints a vast historical fresco of life in the segregated South and in the cities of St. Louis and San Francisco during the 1930s and early 1940s. Part autobiography, part fictional picaresque narrative, part social history and commentary, this story confers an exemplary quality to the experiences of the narrator whose childhood is spent shuttling back and forth between rural and urban America. The book begins and ends with intense physical experiences that teach the narrator that she can trust her body, that it is a source of power and knowledge rather than the liability that her racist and sexist society dictates.