“I know why the caged bird sings”, inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, is an autobiography by Marguerite Annie Johnson, popularly known as Maya Angelou. In this poem, the poet presents a series of contrast between the free bird and the caged bird which is metaphorically used to heighten the differences between the Whites and the African-American during the apartheid. This poem highlights the grievances of the poet against a cruel racist society. Being a victim of discrimination and social and gender marginalization herself, Maya could aptly bring into limelight the pathetic condition of those who live an enslaved life under constant control and restriction, through the image of the caged bird.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Analysis
The theme of freedom and oppression is predominant in the poem. The I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings poem is divided into of six stanzas out of which the sixth stanza is the repetition of the third stanza. Perhaps, the poet allowed unrestricted flow in the sentences to intensify the need for freedom in life. The freedom and joy experienced by a bird in its natural and unconfined habitat is best expressed in the first stanza as the poet beautifully describes how-
“The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.”
The free bird happily flies from place to another in the sky that seems to belong to it. The free bird as of owns the entire sky and freely moves with the wind. The joyful condition of the free bird is immediately contrasted to the confined state in which the caged bird lives. His freedom is forcibly taken away from him as his “wings are clipped and feet are tied”. He is denied the freedom of movement. The only source of freedom he finds is in his voice which he uses to sing songs for freedom. The caged bird lives a sad and miserable life just like the African-Americans who were subjected to inhuman cruelty and tyranny. The rage and helplessness of those people who had to face racial discrimination are well expressed through the pathetic condition of the caged bird whose voice is full of fear and distress. Just like the African-Americans desperately longed for freedom from the shackled existence, the caged bird too longs for freedom in his songs, hoping that someday his wishes will be heard.
The free bird already has so much freedom but still selfishly desires for more. Whereas, the caged bird lives a life of agony and sorrow knowing perfectly that the cage has become “the grave of dreams” for him. The physical pain of living in a limited space and the mental agony of being denied the right to freedom draws our attention to the deplorable system of racial segregation back in the civil rights era. The bird’s struggle for freedom is equated with the African-American struggles for justice and equality. The sluggish struggle and the upsetting condition of the caged bird are associated with words like “narrow cage”, “fearful trills”, “bars of a cage”, “grave of dreams” and so on. The poem, however, ends on a positive note affirming that no matter what the caged bird shall continue to sing for freedom and hope for a better tomorrow.
Apart from the reference to the wretched situation of the African-Americans in general, this poem can be seen as an autobiography of Maya Angelou herself. She is, metaphorically, the caged bird subjected to oppression and injustice. She had to face quite a lot of discrimination and assault at a very early age. At the age of seven, she was subjected to such a terrifying assault that she could not speak for five years.
Her condition was similar to the caged bird that was confined but refused to give up. The image of the caged bird opening his throat to sing can be seen as a reference to Maya’s determination to free her from the fetters of injustice by writing for freedom. Just like the caged bird sang for freedom, Maya wrote poems and autobiographies asking for freedom and equal treatment.