I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Maya Angelou

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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.

Race, Inequality, and Identity

Young Marguerite grows up in the segregated American south; but I Know why the Caged Bird Sings is not simply an investigation of the history and effects of segregation: it is an incisive and honest examination of race, inequality, and identity.

Marguerite is taught by her grandmother to fear and avoid white people, and to think of them as godless, and not to be trusted. At the same time, she teaches her grandchildren never to…

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Sex, Gender and Sexuality

This memoir is also an account of how sex and gender influence experience and identity. Marguerite recognizes that being a girl is a kind of disadvantage, and wishes occasionally that she had been born a boy. The novels she reads have men and boys as their heroes and protagonists, so she believes that to be a hero one must be male. Marguerite also feels pressure to be feminine and attractive, and is tormented by her…

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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…

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Religion also plays a complex role in Marguerite’s upbringing—though the church is a kind of sanctuary for the adults in the book, Marguerite is often intimidated by the church and associates it with punishment.

The importance of religion to black southerners is made clear early in the book. The passion of many adults in Marguerite’s church service embarrasses her; but adults see the church as a sanctuary for their displaced and disenfranchised people. The revivalist…

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The memoir explores the complexity of familial bonds and the importance of family to a person’s experiences and identity. Maya and Bailey’s relationship is in many ways at the center of the book. Young Marguerite loves her brother so dearly and trusts him so implicitly that she confides in him first about her attack. The children often have to cope with feelings of abandonment since they were sent away by their parents to live…

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Home and Displacement

The memoir also explores the idea of home and the pain and confusion of displacement, and in doing so for the particular experience of Maya Angelou also more broadly portrays these issues with respect to the history and experience of black Americans.

Marguerite is sent away from her mother and father to live with her grandmother at a young age; one of her earliest memories is of displacement, of being sent away from her home…

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