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
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.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from