Friday, July 18, 2014


To understand poetry, you must understand the poet. To understand the poet, you need to consider how the poet's ideas are shaped by the social, cultural and historical context of their time. All literature is influenced by the writer's awareness of the world he/she inhabits. Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014) said of herself: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." An African American, Angelou literally did not have a voice; she became mute after a violent sexual attack and her life from then on was a battle to have her voice heard. Once her voice was unleashed, there was no stopping her. She was a prolific author, playwright, actress, civil-rights activist, historian--a survivor. To understand Angelou's work is to understand her dedication to end the prejudices faced by herself and many African Americans, especially females, in the 20th and 21st Century. Two of her poems, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" are anthems to her desire to see freedom for African American women. They are her voice unleashed on the world, a voice that demands a response from the reader.

Maya Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. She is considered one of the most famous modern American poets, revered by Presidents and people alike. Fame did not come easy. America was just recovering from the Great Depression and learning how to deal with its marginalised black population. Angelou wrote at the time: "It was awful to be a Negro and have no control over my life." She set about changing this, becoming a positive role model for her people. This entailed heavy involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and she continued to fight for equality and recognition throughout her life, becoming a strong role model. She used her own experiences to educate those ignorant or dismissive of the hardships suffered by African Americans. Her writings are imbued with passion, demanding attention, yet replete with grace and dignity. The metaphorical imprisonment of the Negro is the subject matter of one of her most moving poems:  "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is auto-biographical, using the extended metaphor of a bird to compare white Americans with African Americans. As a black girl, Angelou lived with little freedom, but through this poem she demands freedom for her people, comparing the "free bird" (white Americans) in the first stanza, with an African American who is: 'a bird that stalks down its narrow cage, [who] can seldom see through his bars of rage,". Angelou lived this experience. Her early life was spent in poverty and insecurity, shuffled between her mother and grandmother's houses from the age of three to sixteen. Writing about her situation becomes her shield against the cold reality of her rootlessness and displacement, relatable to African Americans who grew up in similar circumstances in the second stanza: "His wings are clipped and his feet are tied". Angelou knew what it was to be a black girl in a white world. She experienced violent sexual abuse at the age of eight, and discrimination at every turn, even to the extent that a white dentist would not treat her. Fear was a well-known emotion to African Americans, and Angelou writes: "The caged bird sings with a fearful trill/Of things unknown but longed for still/...the caged bird sings of freedom." To become free and to realise their dreams, the African American had to fight at every turn, or they would end up being a race who "...stands on the grave of dreams". The Civil Rights Movement encapsulated this fight, where the revered Martin Luther King Junior claimed in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech: "The Negro is still not free." By comparing the "free bird" with the "caged bird" throughout the poem, Angelou heightens the injustice of one race being able to "think{s} of another breeze" to fly on, while the "caged bird" is filled with fear and longing and "nightmare scream(s)", yet has an overpowering urge for freedom. 

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