When you hear the words "I know why the caged bird sings," there's no doubt you think first of our author, Maya Angelous. But guess what, Shmoopers? It ain't original! The words were actually first written by one of the first nationally acclaimed African American poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar, in his poem, "Sympathy."
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
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!
Here's our quick Shmoop translation. A (clearly not-so-happy) bird is throwing itself against the bars of its cage. It struggles so much that it begins to bleed and needs to stop, but once its wounds are healed, it tries again. It's a persistent little guy. And in the final stanza, this tough nugget sings a prayer, wishing to be free.
It's not hard to extrapolate that when Angelou adopts Dunbar's phrase, she's calling her young self a caged bird. So what's her cage? What keeps her from freedom? Here's our list:
Anything else come to mind?
But no matter how many times these forces push against her, she continues to fight back. So if Maya is the bird and these things are her cages, what is her song? We're going to go ahead and say it's the book itself (how meta!) and the poems and stories that she has written since childhood. Literature is Maya's way of escaping.
Angelou later wrote a poem of her own titled "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which can give us some more insight into what the caged bird means for her. Here is the last stanza:
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.
Angelou's bird is angry. In the rest of the poem, we learn that not only is it caged, but its wings are clipped and its feet are tied so it can barely move. While the free bird gets to fly around looking at all the awesome things life has to offer—like fat worms—the caged bird stands on "the grave of dreams."
Dunbar's bird can rage and fight because it seems to remember what it was to be free. Angelou's bird has never been free, but—too bad, world—it still sings a song of freedom. Singing is all Angelou's bird can do.
Does this remind you of anyone? Say, the people of Stamps? These folks don't know what it is like to be free—they can't even imagine it. But on Sunday mornings, and when listening to the fight on the radio, they hope and sing a song of freedom. And Maya is no different. At first, she doesn't even know what freedom is, but she understands that her life is not the one she wants. So she does what she can, singing her song, and by the end of the novel, she's a little bit closer to freedom.