I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Themes and Colors
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language Theme Icon

Marguerite finds refuge in fiction, poetry, and language itself. The book is in many ways an account of how Maya Angelou came to be a poet, and her love of language plays a central role.

Marguerite is a quiet child, and especially after her assault, learns to take refuge in the sound and quality of others’ speech. She is told by her Uncles in St. Louis that it is okay if she is ugly so long as she is smart. Though her love of language is genuine (and even innate) it is also buoyed by a sense of obligation; because she is not pretty, she must be well read. Her subsequent relationship with Mrs. Flowers—an educated woman who teaches Marguerite how to read, memorize, and appreciate poetry—is one of the most formative in her entire childhood.

The “singing” of the caged bird is analogous to the refuge that Maya Angelou finds in language and poetry. The world in which she grows up is an unforgiving one, always unfair, and often brutal. The author’s appreciation and love of language as an art form is presented as a kind of salvation. In a book so rife with both racial and sexual violence, it is fitting that speech, communication, art and language would be advocated for.

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Language Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Below you will find the important quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings related to the theme of Language.
Chapter 23 Quotes

The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Edward Donleavy
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In another adeptly crafted and very funny passage turning cultural assumptions about blackness and womanhood on their heads, Angelou shows us how her racial shame could be triggered at any moment— even a celebratory one, like at her eighth-grade graduation. Mr. Donleavy, the white speaker from Arkansas, encourages the black boys at Maya’s school to take as their models Jesse Owens and Joe Louis (Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist runner, and Louis a world champion boxer).

Not only is it disappointing that Donleavy mentions nothing of the black girls, but as Maya notices these are not the same role models Donleavy would probably mention at a white graduation. In white culture, we’d expect to hear about great scientists like Galileo or Madame Curie, or great artists like the painter Gauguin, at most eighth-grade graduations. So Donleavy’s intrusion on black Alabama is further marked by his failure to encourage black boys to be anything besides good athletes (which implies his belief that black boys can’t hope to have good minds), and his failure to even acknowledge the future possibilities of black girls (implying his belief that black girls have nothing of importance to offer at all).


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Chapter 25 Quotes

I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret world which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, Maya registers one of the main reasons she loves books and feels grateful toward Mrs. Flowers for imparting her love of reading. Books, Maya, realizes, can be taken anywhere; they are not dependent on the physical or emotional closeness of anyone else, and offer an indirect but always accessible form of communication between reader and writer. The same is true, in a way, between the different readers of the same book. If Maya reads a book she learned about from Mrs. Flowers, she might feel again like she’s spending time with her black woman role model. It is no simple hobby Mrs. Flowers has shown Maya, but a “secret world which called forth a djinn”— in other words, Mrs. Flowers has given Maya not just a transient human connection, but a lifelong passion and a kind of magic that gives her a new way to sustain herself and engage with the world.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Miss Kirwin never seemed to notice that I was Black and therefore different.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Kirwin
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Maya’s departure from Stamps and arrival in San Francisco mark one of the book’s biggest turning points, and for the reader closely following Maya through her childhood it’s hard not to wonder what her experience will be at her new school—especially given how much of a child’s life takes place at school during her student years. Strangely, in this alien world to the west, Maya’s teacher “never seemed to notice” her skin color, and treats Maya like all of her other students.

One of the unfortunate ironies of this passage is that, as Angelou seems to hint, all students probably should have gotten this sort of equal treatment in the first place. Thus Miss Kirwin’s treatment of Maya is both special and not at all; it is special to Maya, who has never met a teacher like Miss Kirwin, but really it is the bare minimum a teacher could do in an ideal (or even a relatively decent) society.

Chapter 29 Quotes

The Black man, the con man who could act the most stupid, won out every time against the powerful, arrogant white.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Daddy Clidell
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

As we’ve seen her do before in this book, Angelou turns assumptions about whiteness and blackness on their heads so that they become something of an advantage for black people (who otherwise suffer under these stereotypes). Whether or not Angelou thinks a con man’s success is a real victory, the point remains the same: if you’re going to label us with this set of identities, we’ll find a way to make them work better than yours.

This pertains also to the major victory of Joe Louis earlier in the book; Louis, carrying all the stereotypes of black male violence and bestiality, turns them into boxing glory. With that in mind, note that the black man described in this quotation is only acting stupid and that, when it comes to white people, power and arrogance are lined up next to each other as their defining traits. The black con man uses white power and arrogance to benefit himself.