I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography of the early life of poet and writer Maya Angelou. This novel depicts the emotions of Marguerite, a young African American girl living in Arkansas with her grandmother, as she faces hardships from oppression and frequent moving to different cities throughout America. Set in the 1940’s, Marguerite grows up in a rural town where the segregation is “so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like” (Angelou 25). Later in her life, she moves to urban cities where she gradually matures and learns to accept her identity with insecurities such as lack of parental guidance and a culture that praises white beauty.
Although the story is not incredibly action-oriented and some parts of the story may seem mundane, many defining moments of Marguerite’s life help move the story along and educate me about life in a racist and prejudiced society. An interesting attribute to the story is the detailed writing embellished with advanced vocabulary and metaphors along with incorporating profound philosophy. Maya’s poetic style made it difficult to understand some parts of the novel. The hidden conflict in the story is another interesting attribute. The internal conflict of self-acceptance often eluded me as Marguerite experiences the ups and downs of the roller coaster of her life. Even though it might seem inconspicuous, this conflict is finally resolved as Marguerite takes on an important responsibility in her life at the end of the book.
Symbolism and imagery are common literary devices used throughout the novel. While describing her view on oppression, symbolism is often used to convey the suffering of powerless African Americans. She explains, “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 4). After moving to San Francisco, Marguerite notices the cultural diversity of the city and compares it to the mist that often encases the bay area. She instantly fell in love with the city and explains how the mist was not just water vapor, but “a soft breath of anonymity that shrouded and cushioned the bashful traveler” (Angelou 213).
This novel is suited for teenagers and adults, because there are parts of the story dealing with sexuality and coming of age. This book should appeal to people who are fond of themes such as courage in the face of adversity and maturation.