Allow us to reveal the recipe for a literary juggernaut. Mix together one part autobiography, one part romance, and one part adventure. Simmer over adversity for an hour and filter through the eyes of a precocious young girl who will to grow up to be one of the most important literary voices alive. And there you have it: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Let's start at the beginning. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was written in 1969 by Maya Angelou. You might have heard of her. She recited poetry at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and dominated the New York Times Bestseller list for two years. You might say she is Very Important People. But Caged Bird covers Angelou's life before she was a VIP, back when she was just little ol' Marguerite Johnson from Stamps, Arkansas.
The novel was released to both critical acclaim and widespread censorship as a new story about black female life with some majorly frank descriptions of sexuality. Between Toni Morrison and Oprah, we're pretty used to hearing stories about awesome black women these days. But at the time, no one had read anything like Caged Bird. It was kind of like before Avatar when no one made movies in 3D, or before Real World when reality TV hadn't yet conquered the world.
There are five other books in her series of autobiographies, but Caged Bird introduces us to the themes for which she is now famous: race, femininity, independence, identity, community, family, and travel. Oh, and it also shows off her literary chops.
So how did this fabulous new thing get written? It was a dare. That's right, Angelou's editor Robert Loomis was trying to get the then-poet to write a book. When she refused, he said, "It's just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible" (source). Angelou took the bait and locked herself in a room with a pen, paper, and a bottle of sherry for two years (source). When she finally emerged, Caged Bird was by her side. Ta-da!
We hate to say, "you should care because this book is important." But you should care because this book is important. Really important.
When Maya Angelou's autobiography hit the stands, it resonated with the zeitgeist (that's a fancy German word for the spirit of the time) of the United States. It had only been a few years since Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated. African Americans were still grieving over their lost leaders and working through the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, feminism began picking up steam. Yep, those "bra burners" were demanding equal rights and treatment. Since I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a book about a black girl struggling to become an independent woman, it fit right in with the goals of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements.
Since then, the book's popularity has only grown. It has never been out of print, it's at the top of all those important-books lists, and it's pretty much on every high school reading list ever (which means you probably have to read it anyway).
Satisfied? No? Fine. If the whole important thing isn't enough for you, how about this?
We all love to root for the underdog, right? Come on, why else does anyone watch Glee? Even though slushies keep getting thrown in their faces, those kids continue being their dorky glee club selves. Caged Bird's Maya gets way too many metaphorical slushies thrown in her face, but she keeps on keepin' on. She is the underdog that makes it through the tough stuff—just like us.
Oh, hey never-felt-bad-guy! Did we mention that Caged Bird is hilarious and involves conmen, wild parties, and sex? Now stop bugging us and start reading.
The Official Maya Angelou
This is someone we'd like to sit and have a cup of coffee with.
Want to Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?
Check out the poem and you just might find out.
Sonnet 29 in "Real" English
We know this guy talks funny, so check out one of Maya's favorite poems in "real" English.
Late 70s Made-for-TV
Yeah we know, the book was better. No contest.
Clash of the Titans
The name of the article is "Oprah Talks to Maya Angelou." It really doesn't get much better than that. All other interviews just pale in comparison.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs
Maya Rudolph and SNL take on Maya Angelou. It's a labor of love.
The Clinton Inauguration
Watch as Angelou reads at President Clinton's inauguration. Big deal alert.
"The Black National Anthem"
Alice Walker and students at Emory University join together in "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
From the Voice of the Author
Lucky us: Maya Angelou reads her acclaimed work on the audiobook. We can't imagine it any other way.
A Letter to Maya
Angelou reads a letter she wrote to her fifteen-year-old self. She probably could have used that at the time.
Remember all the songs that were sung at the revival? Here, the great Aretha Franklin gets down while singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," one of Dr. Martin Luther King's favorite songs.
Dr. Maya Angelou
What a lady.
Kiss from the Prez
Not many people can say they've gotten a kiss from the President.
Here's Kay Francis, the white Vivian Baxter—or so say Bailey Jr. and Maya.
There are so many editions of Caged Bird, but this is the one in Shmoop's library.