I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounts the trials and tribulations of Maya Angelo’s life growing up as an impoverished black woman in the southern United States.
Its story focuses on Angelou’s childhood during the depressed times of the 1930s and the war-torn times of the 1940s. Her heartbreaking story reveals the prejudice, poverty, segregation and hardship that almost all African- Americans suffered at that time.
Chapters 1–4: The story starts by highlighting the personal suffering of an innocent little girl and her older brother, whose parents end up getting divorced and abandoning them. When their parents’ marriage ends, three-year-old Maya (whose real name is Marguerite) and four-year-old Bailey are sent by train from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas, where they live with their paternal grandmother, whom they call “Momma.” Their parents have given up on their marriage, and, more
importantly, they have given up on their children and being parents to them. Marguerite’s life has just gotten harder.
Chapters 5–8: When Marguerite turns eight years old, her father reappears on the scene and takes her and her brother back to St. Louis to meet up with their mother. He leaves them with her—a decision that eventually leads to Marguerite’s being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. After Mr. Freeman is convicted of rape— a crime for which he serves one day in jail—he is found murdered in an alley. Marguerite blames herself for the man’s death and stops talking to everyone except Bailey.
Chapters 9–15: Later, she finds a true friend, Louise, and begins to talk and smile again. The anger, frustration and hopelessness felt by an intelligent, hardworking black female student with no possibility to use her talents and no prospects for the future is painfully described when Angelou writes about her graduation from high school. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is her story of childhood, adolescence—and loss of innocence.
Today Maya Angelou is one of the world’s most respected writers and poets. In the 1930s and 1940s she was a poor Black girl growing up in the segregated American South. She suffered prejudice and cruelty from people she trusted as well as at the hands of an unjust society. Above all, Maya learned about the power of love and hope. This is Maya’s true story.
About the author
Angelou was a famous African-American author, poet, historian, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director. She was often asked to speak or read from her writings for important occasions. For example, in 1993, she wrote the poem On the Pulse of Morning for former U.S. president Bill Clinton to be read at his inauguration as the forty-second president of the United States. She was also a regular member of the lecture circuit, earning tens of thousands of dollars per appearance. In 2002, she sold the use of her name and poems to the world’s biggest greeting card company, Hallmark, and in 2008, she was the focus of the television series African American Lives 2. She died in 2014.
Download Teacher’s Resources
Find out more at english.com/readers