Maya Angelou: The Caged Bird Who Broke Free

The contribution of Maya Angelou (1928-2014) in modern literature and civil rights activism is immeasurable. The long list of Angelou’s accomplishments includes her work as an actress and screenwriter, an author and poet, a dancer, and a civil rights advocate. She is best recognized for her autobiographical work called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. First published in 1969, the memoir made history of literature as the first bestseller in the non-fiction genre written by a woman of color. Throughout her career, Angelou was greatly honored for her work, including two National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards, in 2005 and 2009, in the category of non-fiction writing. The paper aims to explore the biography and the contribution of Angelou, as well as include

She was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Having experienced a complicated childhood, with her mother and father splitting up when she was little, from a very young age, Maya understood the importance of family. Together with her older brother, Bailey, Maya was sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother, Anne Henderson (Carney Smith 54). Her grandmother was dedicated to developing a sense of self-confidence and pride in her grandchildren, which allowed Maya to establish strong character when she was still young. Sadly, at eight years old, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was visiting her home town of St. Louis.

After the girl testified against the man, her uncles beat the perpetrator to death, which had a severe impact on the girl’s mental health. She refused to speak for several years, blaming herself for saying the name of the man who had assaulted her.

Angelou’s education began in the public schools of Arkansas and California. While still attending high school, Maya became the first woman of color streetcar conductor in San Francisco. When she was only sixteen, Angelou gave birth to her son, Glyde (Guy) Johnson. Later in life, Angelou opened about being a teenage mom. In her interview with Oprah, Maya said that her mother, Vivian, never shamed her and was very supportive in the efforts of raising a son on her own (Capretto). Trying to be independent while also taking care of a baby was hard, but she could always turn to her family for advice. In 1950, Maya married Tosh Angelos, although the marriage did not last long.

Maya was dedicated to pursuing a theater career, which encouraged her studies in drama and dance. She appeared as Clara in Porgy and Bess, which was George Gershwin’s opera production that toured over 22 countries. Off-Broadway, Maya acted in the Cabaret for Freedom. In the beginning of the 1960s, she moved in Cairo and was the associate editor of The Arab Observer and contributed to the Ghanaian Times. In mid-69s, Angelou was appointed assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana.

In addition, between 1964 and 1966, she was the feature editor of the African Review in Accra. After returning from Africa to the US, Maya was appointed by Martin Luther King Jr. himself to serve as the coordinator for the northern affairs at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From the very beginning, Angelou’s work was varied and multi-dimensional, which fit her personality and the desire to try something new every time.

Maya Angelou’s work as a television writer-producer for 20th Century-Fox is also essential to note. She was critically appraised for her feature film Sister, Sister (1982). She also wrote several screenplays, including Georgia, Georgia (1972), All Day Long, and Brewster Place (1990), and others. Down in the Delta (1998) was Angelou’s first attempt at directing a feature-length movie. The movie explored the life of a seventy-year-old woman, her personal story, and the struggles that she had encountered. Maya’s work in movies gave her creative freedom; however, it was quite different from what she had previously experienced.

Maya Angelou’s success as an author is attributed to her key work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The autobiography focuses on exploring the early years of Angelou and is the first book in series of seven. The importance of the Caged Bird is associated with the author’s exploration of the development of her character as a strong and loving person who struggled to overcome the issues of trauma and racism. In the book, Angelou includes the story of little Maya being sent to Stamps, Arkansas, when she was only three as well as explores becoming a mother at sixteen years old. Over the course of the book, the young girl who was a victim of racism and had an inferiority complex transforms into a confident and dignified woman who can stand against discrimination and prejudice.

The value of the Caged Bird in the literary context refers to Angelou managing to write an autobiographical piece that was also fictional in some instances. Being categorized as autobiographical fiction, the book includes an important aspect of thematic development along with other fictional techniques. As written by Angelou herself, “here is a book as a joyful and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself” (Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 1).

However, the main critical view characterized the work as an autobiography, which is a genre for expansion, change, and critique. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers common topics inherent to many works written by women of color who participated in the Civil Rights Movement (Conklin et al. 23). The book celebrates the idea of Black motherhood, attacks racism, underlines the importance of supporting one’s family, and explores the long road toward becoming independent, dignified, and self-defined (Shands et al. 68).

A notable quote from the book that illustrates the author’s attitude toward her personal development is “hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between” (Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 271). This quote is important to underline because it shows the philosophy of Angelou’s childhood. As an African-American girl was becoming a woman, she had to be prepared for the challenges of the social and political climate of that time.

Angelou continued her autobiographical exploration in the next book, Gather Together in My Name (1974). The second work covered Maya’s period of life associated with her son’s birth and the immediate developments. Therefore, it was dedicated to the struggles of being a single parent and a woman of color who was seen as inferior in society. Despite the complications that came along the way, the author teaches her audience to persevere and find strength in themselves to live the life they want.

Maya writes, “self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable” (Angelou, Gather Together in My Name 23). Overall, Angelou has a positive outlook on life from a very young age. Having to grow up early because of giving birth at only sixteen, Maya did not have much time to pity herself and had to start working to provide for her small family.

To follow the 1974 autobiography, Angelou wrote Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013). Each book is dedicated to different periods in Maya’s life, with the collection of autobiographic fiction representing the story of Angelou’s development as not only a woman, a writer, a poet, or an actress but also an advocate for the rights of those who experience bias and discrimination to this day.

“Still I Rise” Analysis

Maya Angelou’s poetry has a special place in her biography and work because it continued the narrative for self-empowerment and protest against oppression. From a young age, Angelou used poetry as one of the tools to cope with traumatic experiences. Poems are effortlessly embedded into her autobiographical work as one of the literary tools to express one’s emotions in a way that prose may not express. The poem “Still I Rise” was initially published in 1978 in And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems. It shares the central message of Angelou’s work, which is to empower women of color to overcome racial prejudice and injustice and stand against their oppressors.

At the very beginning of the poem, the author establishes an assertive tone and the choice of figurative language that illustrates her determination to stand against the oppression. There is a direct addressee, “you,” which denotes the system of prejudice and injustice that she had to overcome. She writes, “you may shoot,” “you may cut,” “you may kill,” “you may trod” to show that her oppressor did everything in its power to undermine the freedom of a woman of color (Angelou, And Still I Rise 70).

To oppose the attacks, Angelou reminds her oppressor of her strength by repeating “I rise” (Angelou, And Still I Rise 70). She will rise from the pain, the hatefulness, the “terror and fear,” and “bitter, twisted lies” (Angelou, And Still I Rise 70). Addressing the ones who undermined her power and value, Angelou teaches the audience of self-respect and confidence. No matter what would happen, she could rise to any occasion, with her skin color adding power to her rather than taking it away. Importantly, in the lines “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise,” the poet acknowledges the effect of slavery on society (Angelou, And Still I Rise 71).

However, she declares that the past would not define her, nor will it determine her success as a woman of color. “Still I Rise” is a poem that explains who Maya Angelou was in her entirety. As a person of art, she saw value in creativity and the expression of one’s emotions. At the same time, she was dedicated about sharing her story for it to become a lesson and an inspiration for millions of African-American women.


Angelou, Maya. And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems. Random House, 1978.

—. Gather Together in My Name. Random House, 1974.

—. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969.

Capretto, Lisa. “Maya Angelou Opens Up to Oprah About Her Teen Pregnancy.Huffington Post. Web.

Carney Smith, Jessie. Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture. Volume 1, A-C. Greenwood, 2011.

Conklin, Nancy, et al. The Culture of Southern Black Women: Approaches and Materials. Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, 1983.

Shands, Kerstin, et al. Writing the Self. Essays on Autobiography and Autofiction. Elanders, 2015.

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