Study Guide

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Identity

By Maya Angelou


Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. (12.24)

Maya notices pretty early in life that male heroes are always swashbuckling, while princesses are always standing around looking pretty. She would much rather be swashbuckling, and she's not shy about it—gender identity is a big issue for her.

The gamblers in pinstriped suits and their makeup-deep women whispered to me out of blood-red mouths that now I knew as much as they did. I was eight, and grown. (12.6)

Um, those ladies are creepy. Why does Maya feel like an adult at age eight? Is it because of the rape, or are there a variety of factors? What else makes you an adult?

Momma hadn't thought that taking off my dress in front of Mrs. Flowers would kill me stone dead. If I had refused, she would have thought I was trying to be "womanish" and might have remembered St. Louis. (15.31)

What is being "womanish," anyway? Why is it so bad?

"She doesn't talk much. Her name's Margaret." […]

"Well, that may be, but the name's too long. I'd never bother myself. I'd call her Mary if I was you." (16.14, 19)

A rose by any other name is probably pretty upset that you called it a weed. Names are a source of identity. By refusing to call Maya by her name, Mrs. Cullinan and her friend are wiping away part of her core.

Signs with arrows around the barbecue pit pointed MEN, WOMEN, and CHILDREN toward fading lanes, grown over since last year. […] So when the urge hit me to relieve myself, I headed toward another direction. (20.12)

This is what we call an identity crisis. Correction: a major identity crisis—she can't even decide which bathroom to use. Since she was raped, people have told Maya that she isn't a child anymore, but Momma always tells her not to be "womanish." Her solution? She goes with a fourth option, marching to the beat of her own drummer.

I don't think she understood half of what she was saying herself, but, after all, girls have to giggle, and after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl. (20.22)

What does it mean to be a girl? Seems like a simple question, but even today—or especially today—it can get some pretty heated debates started.

After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself. The unquestioning acceptance by my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity. (32.8)

Whodathunkit? Somehow, being homeless is one of the best things to happen to Maya. It totally changes her identity, to the point where she feels like a totally different person. And in her case, that's a good thing.

A boyfriend's acceptance of me would guide me into that strange and exotic land of frills and femininity. (35.52)

Oh, Maya.

Just as gratefulness was confused in my mind with love, so possession became mixed up with motherhood. I had a baby. (36.24)

When Maya has her baby, her entire identity shifts. It doesn't matter anymore if she's a woman or a child—she's a mother. And that's all that counts.