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Introduction to Maya Angelou's book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings


In Stamps, the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really; absolutely know what whites looked like. We knew only that they were different, to be feared, and in that fear was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich,the worker against the employer; and the poorly dressed against the well dressed.

Download & Read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This is Stamps, a small town in Arkansas, in the United States, in the 1930s. The population is almost evenly divided between black and white and totally divided by where and how they live.

As Maya Angelou says, there is very little contact between the two races. Their houses are in different parts o f tow n and they go to different schools, colleges, stores, and places of entertainment. When they travel, they sit in separate parts o f buses and trains.After the American Civil War (1861—65), slavery was ended in the defeated Southern states, and many changes were made by the national government to give black people more rights. However, as time passed, the South was left more and m ore alone and the state governments began to take control again. Black and white people were segregated in many ways. Arkansas, like all Southern states, passed laws against marriage or even close relationships between the races. Blacks were prevented from voting by having to pay taxes or pass difficult reading and w riting tests. By the early twentieth century, the inequality was as bad as in South Africa.Maya Angelou was not born into this. Her parents lived in St. Louis, a city six hundred kilometers to the north. There, the situation of black people, though far from perfect, was much better. When she was three, though, Maya’s parents parted, and she and her brother Bailey were sent south to live in Arkansas.This book is the story o f the early years o f Maya Angelou's life. She meets with racism in its worst forms. Then, at the age of eight, she is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She returns to Stamps but, w hen her m other moves to California, travels to join her. She sees her father again, and tries to drive him home from Mexico when he is too drunk to move. It is a far from normal way to grow up, but Maya Angelou survives, graduates from college, and sets out on the path to being the famous and important woman that she is today.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of five books that Maya Angelou wrote about her life. The others are Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin} and Gettin’ Merry LikeChristmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981) and All God'sChildren need Traveling Shoes (1986). She is also known as a poet and an actress.


In the 1960s, the United States government passed a number of laws to end segregation in the South. However, the laws were passed in Washington, D.C., and had little effect in Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas. Lack of action led to black protests on the streets, which were stopped with great violence by the police. The struggle for change became known as the Civil Rights Movement. At the end o f the 1950s, Maya had moved to New York to work as an actress and she met many artists and writers who were active in the movement. However, she soon left the United States because, like many black Americans then, she was becoming interested in her African history. She moved, with her son, at first to Egypt and then, in 1962, to Ghana. There she became friends with the black leader Malcolm X and returned with him to the U.S. to build a new civil rights organization. But in February 1965, Malcolm X was shot dead. At this time the leader o f the Civil Rights Movement was Martin Luther King. In 1963 a quarter o f a million people of all races had marched on Washington where, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King made his most famous speech. In it he talked about his dream o f racial equality: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons o f former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

On April 4th 1968, on Maya Angelou’s birthday, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. It was because of her grief at his death that Maya wrote I Know W hy the Caged BirdSings. The title o f the book comes from the poem Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1924). He was the son of escaped slaves and wrote about a bird in a cage which has beaten the bars until its wings are bruised. Its song is not a song o f joy, but a prayer for freedom.

The years after this were some o f Maya’s best as a writer and a poet. She wrote articles, short stories, poems, songs, and music for movies. She continued the story o f her life, produced plays, and gave lectures. She also wrote for television and acted on it. She met the talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, and became her friend and adviser.In 1981 she returned to the South and became professor of American literature at Wake Forest University in South Carolina. When Bill Clinton became President in 1993 she read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at the ceremony. Since then she has been busy as a highly-paid lecturer. Recently she has given up flying, and she travels to her lectures by tour bus because she is tired of the problems o f being famous.

Maya Angelou's story is the story o f a black girl and a black woman’s victory over racism. It is also the story of the march to freedom of African Americans.


Compiled by McCoy Major Golding