Study Guide

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Literature and Writing

By Maya Angelou

Literature and Writing

As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin Hood's forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed every day. (11.1)

Some people play World of Warcraft 20 hours a day. Others read. Maya is a reader, and she runs to literature to escape the real world.

She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. (15.11)

Even real people can become literary characters. If Mrs. Flowers is the refined English lady, who is Momma?

"Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals." (15.35)

Eureka! Mrs. Flowers flips the switch in Maya's head, helping her realize that books are not just entertainment, but tools to communicate and connect with other people.

I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. (15.54)

Beowulf, Oliver Twist, and of course Shakespeare all invite Maya to hang with them. And guess what—we've got an open invitation, too. And if that weren't enough, how about an invitation to chat with Maya? I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings sure gives us that.

Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales? (23.66)

Whenever we're down in the dumps, we put Adele on loop and mope right along with her. And at Maya's eighth grade graduation, the same thing happens—minus Adele, plus black poets. As a poet, has Angelou become one of the heroes who "sustain[s]" the rest of us?

I wouldn't miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books. (25.23)

Even when your teachers are long gone, the meaning they helped you uncover in literature will always be there. That's why we're not worried you'll forget about Shmoop any time soon.

By all accounts those storytellers, born Black and male before the turn of the twentieth century, should have been ground into useless dust. Instead they used their intelligence to pry open the door of rejection and not only became wealthy but got some revenge in the bargain. (29.20)

Wait a second, how are Daddy Clidell's conmen friends storytellers? What kinds of stories do they tell? Are these stories any different than the literature that Maya loves so much?

Sitting at a side table my mind and I wove a cat's ladder of near truths and total lies. I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas. (34.32)

Looks like Maya's love for literature has paid off. Here, it's helping her write up her not-so-true bio as she's applying for a job. Oh, and if we remember correctly, it also helps her write an award-winning biography.