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Maya Angelou Knew Why the Caged Bird Sings

Written by Alisa Mullins | May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, who passed away this morning, is probably best known for her coming-of-age memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she wrote of overcoming seemingly overwhelming adversity, including being sent away by her parents at age 3, raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7, and giving birth to her only child at age 16, all against the backdrop of rampant racial prejudice.

The title of this book has become so synonymous with Angelou that many people don’t realize she borrowed it from the third stanza of the 19th-century poem “Sympathy,” written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of escaped slaves:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he 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!

Angelou credited Dunbar, as well as William Shakespeare, with inspiring her “writing ambition,” and she frequently referred to caged birds as metaphors for slavery and oppression in her writing, including this poem:

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

― Maya Angelou

In addition to being the author of more than 30 books and volumes of poetry, Maya Angelou was a dancer, a singer, an actor, and an activist. During the ’60s, she served as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she advocated all her life for the rights of the oppressed, especially women and minorities. “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free,” she said.

Angelou’s life and work served as inspiration to countless people all over the world to refuse to accept defeat and to keep striving for justice.

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