In Stamps, the segregation was so complete that most Black children

didn’t really; absolutely know what whites looked like. We knew only

that they were different, to be feared, and in that fear was included the

hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich,

the worker against the employer; and the poorly dressed against the well


This is Stamps, a small town in Arkansas, in the United States,

in the 1930s. The population is almost evenly divided between

black and white and totally divided by where and how they live.

As Maya Angelou says, there is very little contact between the

two races. Their houses are in different parts o f town and they go

to different schools, colleges, stores, and places o f entertainment.

When they travel, they sit in separate parts o f buses and trains.

After the American Civil War (1861—65), slavery was ended in

the defeated Southern states, and many changes were made by the

national government to give black people more rights. However,

as time passed, the South was left more and more alone and the

state governments began to take control again. Black and white

people were segregated in many ways. Arkansas, like all Southern

states, passed laws against marriage or even close relationships

between the races. Blacks were prevented from voting by having

to pay taxes or pass difficult reading and writing tests. By the early

twentieth century, the inequality was as bad as in South Africa.

Maya Angelou was not born into this. Her parents lived in

St. Louis, a city six hundred kilometers to the north. There, the

situation of black people, though far from perfect, was much

better. When she was three, though, Maya’s parents parted, and

she and her brother Bailey were sent south to live in Arkansas.

This book is the story o f the early years o f Maya Angelou s

life. She meets with racism in its worst forms. Then, at the age

o f eight, she is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She returns to

Stamps but, when her mother moves to California, travels to

join her. She sees her father again, and tries to drive him home

from Mexico when he is too drunk to move. It is a far from

normal way to grow up, but Maya Angelou survives, graduates

from college, and sets out on the path to being the famous and

important woman that she is today.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first o f five books that

Maya Angelou wrote about her life. The others are Gather Together

in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin} and Getting’ Merry Like

Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981) and A ll God’s

Children need Traveling Shoes (1986). She is also known as a poet

and an actress.

In the 1960s, the United States government passed a number o f

laws to end segregation in the South. However, the laws were

passed in Washington, D.C., and had little effect in Alabama,

Georgia, and Arkansas. Lack o f action led to black protests on

the streets, which were stopped with great violence by the police.

The struggle for change became known as the Civil Rights

Movement. At the end o f the 1950s, Maya had moved to New

York to work as an actress and she met many artists and writers

who were active in the movement. However, she soon left the

United States because, like many black Americans then, she was

becoming interested in her African history. She moved, with her

son, at first to Egypt and then, in 1962, to Ghana. There she

became friends with the black leader Malcolm X and returned

with him to the U.S. to build a new civil rights organization. But

in February 1965, Malcolm X was shot dead.

At this time the leader o f the Civil Rights Movement was

Martin Luther King. In 1963 a quarter o f a million people o f all

races had marched on Washington where, from the steps o f the


Lincoln Memorial, King made his most famous speech. In it he

talked about his dream o f racial equality: “I have a dream that one

day on the red hills o f Georgia the sons o f former slaves and the

sons o f former slave owners will be able to sit down together at

the table o f brotherhood.”

On April 4th 1968, on Maya Angelou’s birthday, Martin Luther

King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. It was because o f

her grief at his death that Maya wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird

Sings. The title o f the book comes from the poem Sympathy, by

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1924). He was the son o f escaped

slaves and wrote about a bird in a cage which has beaten the

bars until its wings are bruised. Its song is not a song o f joy, but a

prayer for freedom.

The years after this were some o f Maya’s best as a writer and a

poet. She wrote articles, short stories, poems, songs, and music for

movies. She continued the story o f her life, produced plays, and

gave lectures. She also wrote for television and acted on it. She

met the talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, and became her friend

and adviser.

In 1981 she returned to the South and became professor o f

American literature at Wake Forest University in South Carolina.

When Bill Clinton became President in 1993 she read her poem,

On the Pulse of Morning, at the ceremony. Since then she has been

busy as a highly-paid lecturer. Recently she has given up flying,

and she travels to her lectures by tour bus because she is tired o f

the problems o f being famous.

Maya Angelou s story is the story o f a black girl and a black

woman’s victory over racism. It is also the story o f the march to

freedom o f African Americans.

V ll

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. []. Retrieved from