Why does the caged bird sing?

Which Theory Provided the Most Insight?

As I reach the end of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the lens which best allows for insight is without reservation, the reader response literary theory. Why? Well, for me, it is hidden in the title. When I started to read the book, I thought with obvious assumption that the title was her title. It isn’t. As I read and turned the pages of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the whisper of a haunting appendage kept asking “…do you?” Yes, now I do!

I don’t know who put the answer in my heart. I certainly do not claim to have conjured the realization solely on my personal literary analysis of the memoir. Maya Angelou seems to act as a vessel for divine intervention. I am certain that I am not unique as a reader but I “get it”. I know why the caged bird sings.

The caged bird, in all its many forms, sings for survival, it sings for hope, and it sings because there is a beauty to one’s own music that can be heard by God and by all those who keep God in their heart. Oppression, discrimination, violence, and a sheer menu of evils continue to plague society. We know this unfortunate truth. However, silence is never the answer and hopefully Angelou’s memoir brings that epiphany to each reader. The caged bird is symbolic of each of us. Angelou learned to “prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and be unsurprised by anything in between” (Angelou 287).

The reader response theory demands the reader to make both personal and global connections. Personally, it was very easy to shake off the southern 1930’s Arkansas setting and bring the words to a more personal time and place. There are racial inequalities in this province and there is violence, oppression, gender inequality, and a host of other sins that mirror those in Arkansas.

In terms of global connections, the treatment of women in some Middle Eastern European countries is every bit as horrific as that found within the pages of Angelou’s work. The more recent 2007 novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, chronicles such atrocities. Harper Lee’s 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird, mirrors much of the same themes as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, moving the setting to Alabama, instead of Arkansas.

Using the lens of “reader response theory”, I certainly do not encounter any obstacles in “suspending my own values, prejudices or worldviews” to allow the book to work on me. She tells her story so well, that I (as the mere reader) desperately want to fit in to it in some way. I want to be the “white girl” that does something. I want to send the three “po white trash” girls home where they belong, long before they disrespect Momma with racial taunts. I want to walk in on Maya and Mr. Freeman before the rape takes place and call the police to ensure her safety. I want to sit with Maya at lunch during her final grade 12 year and ask her if she needs anything, knowing that she is desperately trying to hide her pregnancy until after graduation. I want to tell Uncle Willie that he doesn’t have to hide in the vegetable bin because he has nothing to fear. I want to assure him that there is no such thing as the KKK and no one is coming to lynch a Negro.

Of course I can’t do it! I can’t do any of it and Angelou knows that. But that is when the whisper returns and provides clarity. I can do something. I can move forward and I can sing now. I can take up the torch where Ms. Angelou left off.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not a period piece; a single memoir of a snapshot in time. It is timeless, and beckons personal reflection. It is a heart-rending story of adversity, and the amazing ability to overcome it. It is a gift to the reader.

I am not caged. I certainly have experienced not a fraction of the troubles that Angelou faced, but her memoir is a reminder that if and when they come, it is possible to rise up and soar above the sadness and circumstance. We owe it to each other and we owe it to ourselves.



Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970. Print.


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