I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou


Why I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Mt. Elbert

There is no direct connection between this book selection and this next mountain. Like Pikes Peak, I’m introducing this book because it parallels where I am at in the inner journey of this year. Starting with Sandstone Peak, I introduced the topics of depression and suicide. I followed this theme on Pikes with the selection of The Bell Jar by an author, Sylvia Plath, who was not able to fight her way out from depression. I picked this first autobiographical novel by one of my personal heroes, Maya Angelou, because it’s the opposite story of a woman who finds her way through devastating life events to become one of the most distinctive voices of our nation. One of Angelou’s most famous poems, And Still I Rise, epitomizes her spirit to overcome seemingly impossible barriers. I have included the full poem at the bottom of this page.

Ms. Angelou’s books and voice have been a beacon to me through the years. So much so, that when I was doing cognitive work on myself, I identified four disruptive, negative behaviors that I repeat. I named these after literary characters so that I could identify with them and I’ve been discussing them in my blogs as the books appear with those characters. I was also advised to then pick a name for my higher self – my best self. The self that overcomes these negative behaviors. I called this self in me Maya. One as a tribute to my connection to the earth (Maya is the Mayan word for Earth). Second, as a tribute to Ms. Angelou. May I aspire to rise as she did each day.

A high moment in my life was getting to shake this amazing woman’s hand at a book signing and having her sign my first edition of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s one of my most cherished books, along with the other signed books I have by this outstanding author and woman.


More About I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

mayaI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 autobiography about the early years of the great American writer and poet Maya Angelou. Her unique voice was lost to the world in May of 2014.  The first in a seven-volume series, Caged Bird is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The book begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother and ends when Maya becomes a mother at the age of 16. In the course of Caged Bird, Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice.

Angelou was challenged by her friend, author James Baldwin, and her editor, Robert Loomis, to write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature. Reviewers often categorize Caged Bird as autobiographical fiction because Angelou uses thematic development and other techniques common to fiction, but the prevailing critical view characterizes it as an autobiography, a genre she attempts to critique, change, and expand. The book covers topics common to autobiographies written by Black American women in the years following the Civil Rights Movement: a celebration of Black motherhood; a critique of racism; the importance of family; and the quest for independence, personal dignity, and self-definition.

Caged Bird was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years. It has been used in educational settings from high schools to universities, and the book has been celebrated for creating new literary avenues for the American memoir. However, the book’s graphic depiction of childhood rape, racism, and sexuality has caused it to be challenged or banned in some schools and libraries.

When selecting a title, Angelou turned to Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet whose works she had admired for years. Jazz vocalist and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln suggested the title. According to Lyman B. Hagen, the title pulls Angelou’s readers into the book while reminding them that it is possible to both lose control of one’s life and to have one’s freedom taken from them. Angelou has credited Dunbar, along with Shakespeare, with forming her “writing ambition”. The title of the book comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.


And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.