Critical Insights: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Editor: Mildred R. Mickle,
    Assistant Professor of English,
Penn State Greater Allegheny
October 2009 · 1 volume · 296 pages · 6"x9"

Includes Online Database with Print Purchase
ISBN: 978-1-58765-624-8
# of Pages: 296
# of Volumes: 1
Print List Price: $105
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e-ISBN: 978-1-58765-625-5
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In-depth critical discussions of Maya Angelou's novel - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings took the world by storm when it was published in 1969. As it shot to the top of best-seller lists, it made Angelou one of the most recognized black women in America. Despite controversy over its frank depiction of sexual abuse, the autobiography is still widely read in high schools and colleges across the country. Three decades after it was published, readers continue to admire Angelou's artistry, wit, and indomitable spirit.

Edited by Mildred R. Mickle, Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Greater Allegheny, this volume brings together a variety of critical offerings on Angelou's famous autobiography. Mickle's introduction pays tribute to Angelou's achievement and examines the inspiration she drew from Phillis Wheatley's civil rights advocacy as well as the similarities between Caged Bird and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poetry. The Paris Review's Christopher Cox reminds readers of how revolutionary Angelou's autobiography was when it was published and recounts the comments Angelou made on her work in an interview with George Plimpton.

Four original essays by Amy Sickels, Pamela Loos, Neil Heims, and Robert C. Evans provide valuable context for reader's new to Angelou's work. Sickels discusses the historical events that surround Angelou's life: the civil rights, black power, and black arts movements as well as the emergence of black women's literature with the first publications of Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Lucille Clifton. Loos provides a survey of the major pieces of criticism on Caged Bird, paying special attention to the book's early reception and how it fits in the autobiographical genre and slave narratives, as well as issues of race, gender, aesthetics, and identity. Neil Heims discusses the struggle for a black identity through readings of both Caged Bird and James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. Finally, Robert C. Evans examines the role that both formal and informal education play in the young Maya's maturation.

The collection also includes ten previously published essays that examine Caged Bird through a variety of lenses. Critics examine the character of young Maya, noting how her rootlessness contributes to her perseverance and adaptability, as well as how Angelou's narrative technique allows her to recount the details of incredible life without being controlled by them. The book's treatment of sexual abuse is also investigated in the larger context of other black women's narratives of sexual abuse. Other critics attend to Caged Bird's place in the genre of ethnic autobiography and the particular challenges it presents to teachers seeking to expose students multicultural literature; the childhood roots of Angelou's political activism; the influence of blues music on the narrative's structure; and the young Maya's relationships with the black community, literature, and the women in her life.

Finally, a chronology of Angelou's life, a thorough list of her published works, and an extensive bibliography of critical offerings provide a wealth of resources for readers desiring to study Angelou and Caged Bird in greater depth.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index


From "About This Volume"
The essays in this volume pay tribute to Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). They explore Angelou’s record of her early life dealing with racism in the segregated American South, her reaction to being sexually molested, and the solace she finds in literature. They also examine how she treats growing up, traveling west to California to escape segregation, discovering her sexuality, becoming an adult and a single mother, and adopting the calls of the Black Arts movement and the Black Power movement to promote images of a positive black aesthetic. Angelou uses the autobiographical form to present major American historical events, such as life under Jim Crow segregation and the employment opportunities made available to women and minorities duringWorldWar II, through the lens of a young black girl’s experiences, continuing the work begun by other black artists in incorporating a neglected black experience and artistic contribution into American history and letters. The essays show what a brave first step Angelou took in revealing her life and her insecurities about her sexuality and her own appearance. Her honest and unflinching examination of her life and her major influences continues to speak to audiences today.

In addition to biographical information on Maya Angelou provided by Judith BartonWilliamson, this volume contains essays that critique Angelou’s first autobiography from historical, sociopolitical, and cultural perspectives; that provide close readings of the text; and that compare and contrast this autobiography with other authors’ works. In “The Paris Review Perspective,” Christopher Cox provides valuable insight into Angelou’s perspective on her writing and how she overcame the experience of sexual abuse. Amy Sickels discusses the historical and cultural factors that give Angelou and her first autobiography their multidimensional appeal. She describes how Angelou’s exposure to a variety of different literary periods, artists, and black nationalities, along with her knowledge of the tradition of the slave narrative, informs her first autobiography. Pamela Loos gives an overview of the different but predominantly positive scholarly reviews of Angelou’s work. Neil Heims compares and contrasts Angelou’s first autobiography with James Baldwin’s fifth novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), noting that the choice of genre informed the agendas of both authors. Whereas Baldwin focused on a universal message of understanding black identity, Heims writes, Angelou narrowed her focus to a single black woman’s process of accepting herself. Robert C. Evans examines the appeal of using I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a way to teach readers survivals skills as well as the importance of learning to think and read critically.

In the “Critical Readings” section, Liliane K. Arensberg argues that the young Maya’s physical and mental travels are important because they are representative of how she learns the value of flexibility. For Arensberg, Maya’s metaphorical “deaths” represent her release of negative internal and external referents, allowing positive ways of thinking and acting to take their places. Martin A. Danahay argues for the necessity of learning to use autobiographies written by people from diverse cultures, such as Angelou’s, as a first step in an extended exploration of the complexities of various cultures. Mary Vermillion investigates how Harriet Jacobs and Maya Angelou use their life stories to combat negative perceptions of the black female body and to assert positive examples of black beauty. Lyman B. Hagen maintains that a formalist reading of the work reveals Angelou’s revolt against racism and calls for the audience to work toward equality. Pierre A. Walker explores how various scenes in the narrative demonstrate the young Maya’s growing resistance to racism.

Yolanda M. Manora argues that in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou creates a parallel black female subjectivity that allows the author to operate both within and outside of the text that the young Maya inhabits. Further,Manora argues that this narrative control is ultimately empowering for Angelou and for the reader’s understanding of the history of the formation of black female subjectivity. Myra K. McMurry discusses how “role-playing” in the work comments on the power of the imagination to either imprison or ensnare an individual. Cherron A. Barnwell discusses how Angelou uses blues music to infuse all of her autobiographies with messages of hope and how using the blues aesthetic in autobiographies offers a way to survive adversity. Clarence Nero discusses how Angelou combines her experiences with the black and white communities, with education, and with reading literature to craft a text that inspires readers to appreciate the lessons they can learn from their own communities. Suzette A. Henke discusses how Angelou’s objective in her first autobiography is to raise public awareness about the impact that sexual abuse has on black girls and women and to encourage readers to act to prevent it.

The essays in this volume reflect a variety of interpretations of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Understandably, these essays cannot capture all of the richness of Angelou’s work, but they mark an excellent start; the authors’ interpretations encourage debate, paving the way for further scholarly discussion of Angelou’s extensive works and performances.