Maya Angelou: The Power of the Written Word


Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

The Memoir:

Published in 1969, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a seven volume autobiography that details her childhood and adolescent life in a Jim Crow South, as well as the discrimination she faced growing up [7].  Like her 1983 poem, “Caged Bird,” (see full poem here) [3] her autobiography owes its title to a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar named “Sympathy” (see full poem here) [6].  Regarding the temporal and substantive span of her work, it covers the first seventeen years of her life and describes at length the development – and at times distress – of her family relationships, which are themselves set against the larger backdrop of racial prejudice [7].  Partly self-expression and partly therapy, the work helped her, while writing it, to come to terms not only with the immediate struggles of the Civil Rights Movement (in which she took part as an official of the SCLC and personal friend to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – whose assassination partially inspired her to write her memoir) but her personal experiences with racism [10].  Yet her work moves beyond a channeling of her personal feelings and seeks to tap into those of the larger community and a nation dealing with injustice; so, though it is a representation of her life particularly, it is equally a tribute to the deeper history of African Americans [2].  In a similar way, the work also balances the issues of black identity with the unique, yet still related, issues of black female identity – both of which, by the end of her work, she comes to accept and celebrate.  She challenges the imposed shame of the former by her deep pride of heritage and the latter by her various and unconventional roles as dancer, singer, activist, and writer.  Even the style in which autobiography was written stands in defiance of the dominant view; while some have described it as a work of fictional autobiography, others have argued its innovation of form and execution, linking the memoir’s directness of tone with that of African American oral traditions [2].

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

“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.

It is an unnecessary insult” [7]

Interpretation and Uses:

Since its original publication more than fifty years ago, much has been done with this work and said about it.  Recognized as significant in its time, it was soon made into a movie in 1979 starring actresses Constance Good and Esther Rolle, and given positive critical reviews in multiple established newspapers such as the Washington Post [1] and Newsweek [8].  Not without controversy however, Angelou’s book faced significant criticism over some of the content, which was opposed on the grounds of drug references, its description of sexual assault and the type of language it used.  These reasons, among many others, led to the censorship and even prohibition of the work in many settings – often those with religious and conservative ties.  Some have even cited it as the major reason behind the creation of the Banned Books week – an issue which the authoress herself lamented by noting that a large number of the people who were most vocal about her book had never read it at all [9].  For the most part, however, it is a well accepted work in the academic world and is widely taught at schools across the country, serving as both source and subject material for many collegiate essays and papers.  Apart from its critical acclaim and reputation in the academic world, the memoir’s sales and widespread popularity have several times earned it a high position on the New York Times list of bestsellers [9].  In doing a search on sites like Google or Youtube, one is easily able to find numerous references to Angelou’s work and multiple videos featuring dramatic readings of her poetry [11].  Towards the end of her life in 2014, Maya Angelou also worked with music producers to refashion her signature work into a hip hop album of songs entitled Caged Bird Songs, which blended her poetry with musical beats [9].  More recently, there have also been websites dedicated to spreading her story to the wider public and preserving the memory of and significance of her works [5].  Because of the author’s recent death in 2014, her work – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings figuring as the most prominent and oft mentioned – has received a great deal of revisitation and interpretation.

Shortly after her passing, there was was even a commemorative museum exhibit which featured one of the written manuscripts of her memoir [4].  Regardless of praise or criticism, each of these interactions with the memoir, in its own way adds to the message and legacy left behind and though they do not change the work itself, they do form a collective extension of it and affect the way it is viewed.

Power and Purpose:

Much of the power of Angelou’s memoir depends on the strength of her words, and their existence as a testimony of the injustices suffered by African Americans; they bear witness to a time of great social change and can continue to have relevance today.  Though less physically forceful than some of the more extreme measures taken by other Black Power groups, they are no less important.  The directness and clarity of the words used, in comparison to the slave narratives of a hundred years or so ago, are a direct challenge to the sensibilities of a dominant society which once demanded drawing a veil over “unpleasant” episodes and even prevented the literacy crucial to creating such a durable legacy.  This memoir has also had the processual effect of opening the way for more female African American authors such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker who have themselves become well-recognized literary institutions [7].

Ultimately, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings serves the key purposes of making people feel and recognize, without which, for want of sustaining and authentic emotion, a cause can gradually fade and be forgotten.

Zheng-Liann Schuster



[1] Ahuja, Masuma.  “The 1970 review of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.”  Washington Post.  28 May 2014.  Web. 18 April 2017.

[2] Als, Hilton.  “Songbird.”  The New Yorker.  5 August 2002.  Web.  18 April 2017.

[3] Angelou, Maya.  “Caged Bird.”  Poetry Foundation.  Web.  17 April 2017.

[4] Associated Press.  “Commemorative Maya Angelou exhibition opens in NYC.”  San Diego Tribune.  30 May 2014. Web. 18 April 2017.

[5] Caged Bird Legacy | The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou.  2017.  Web. 18 April 2017.

[6] Dunbar, Paul Laurence.  “Sympathy.”  Poetry Foundation.  Web. 17 April 2017.

[7] Fox, Margalit.  “Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86.”  The New York Times.  28 May 2014.  Web.  18 April 2017.

[8] Gross, Robert A.  “Newsweek’s Original Review of Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.”  Newsweek.  28 May 2014.  Web. 18 April 2017.

[9] Lanzendorfer, Joy.  “11 Facts about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  Mental Floss.  8 February 2017.  Web. 18 April 2017.

[10] Wightman, Juliet.  “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica.  16 March 2017.  Web.  18 April 2017.

[11] CBS Evening News.  “Maya Angelou’s masterpiece “Caged Bird”.”  Online video clip.  Youtube.  28 May 2014.  Web.  18 April 2017.


3 thoughts on “Maya Angelou: The Power of the Written Word”


    Angelou’s works alone are proof of power gained through words, in this case Black Power. She didn’t stop with writing; she traveled the world as a journalist, traveled the states to give as many as 80 lectures a year, and taught at Wake Forest University.

    Another tidbit of information I found interesting: Maya Angelou sent flowers to Corretta Scott King on her birthday every year rather than celebrate her birthday because MLK, Jr. was assassinated that day and she continued to struggle with her birth date following 1968.

  2. The section regarding the interpretation of Angelou’s fiction strikes me because of the symbolic value that works of literature hold. The text can mean one thing to the author and a completely different thing a reader, and even these meanings can shift over time. In this way, the fist gesture that for so long was a symbol of black power is similar. Today, the fist is used by activist or political groups with any number of ideological leaning or cause. Just as the fist is simply a hand gesture with no universal meaning or power, Angelou’s literature is subjective, and its power stems through the way that her readers interpret the text.

  3. I did my project on Bob Fitch, who was a photographer for the SCLC. Although I didn’t find any pictures of Maya Angelou in his photography archive, I would be curious to know if they spent much time working together.

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