Her first of many autobiographic works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings charts Maya Angelou's experience as an African-American girl in Arkansas, where she coped with not only racial identity, segregation, and discrimination, but also becoming temporarily mute after being raped by her stepfather at the age of eight. Grim as all that sounds, there is also a strain of hope and determination, along with moments of humor—plus, Angelou toys with the autobiography form, lending the book a page-turning quality you'd expect in a bestselling novel.
There are tons of things we cultural studies aficionados could sink our teeth into in this one. First, it concerns folks who are on the margins of culture and subject to oppression, while also exploring themes of individual and group identity and resistance to such oppression. The text also fits in with broader issues of twentieth-century American politics and questions of gender, race, and "otherness."