Maya Angelou’s Poetic Tone And Voice In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings


This paper will analyze how Maya Angelou's poetry and autobiography presents counter-discourses to the colonizing discourses about the other, about the subordinate, about people of color, and people who lost their rights because of their race or social condition. It will identify the traces of postcolonial literature in the poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as well as other of her works. Although US literature is not considered postcolonial, one can argue through this work that Maya Angelou's life and work denounce racism, social injustice, and prejudice. It is crucial to investigate to what extent Maya Angelou represents the postcolonial voice, which joins with other voices to show that the 'truth' of the colonizer is bankrupt.

The postcolonial studies that emerged in the 1980s suggest that postcolonial literature is the literature written by peoples who suffered the weight of colonialism, that is, they were European colonies and somehow did not fully liberate themselves from colonialism. However, US literature is not included in postcolonial literature because of the colonizing position that the United States took. Many countries, former European colonies, are dominated by the US Market, US commercial, and even military interests. For example, the term ‘banana republic’ was a sarcastic way to refer to countries subdued and governed by US influence.

For this thinker, if identity politics accentuates colonial thinking, the converse, identity in politics, characterizes genuine decolonial thinking. In the case of the writer Maya Angelou, internationally recognized for her struggle against racism and the oppression of the underprivileged, one can argue that, although born in the United States, she produced postcolonial literature that reveals a certain ‘disobedience.’ Somehow Angelou's works resemble those of Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, for example) and Claude McKay's of Jamaica, whose work Banjo discusses issues of colonialism, imperialism, prejudice, and racism among other themes. It is also important to remember that in 1961, Maya Angelou, who was a civil rights worker, moved to Egypt, where she worked in a newspaper. A year later, she moved to Ghana, where she later joined writers and activists such as W. B. Du Bois, William Gardner Smith, Malcolm X, and others. This experience in Africa seems to have been fundamental for the author to broaden her view of colonialism in African countries.

Angelou's ‘The Caged Bird’ reveals this when the poet says: “… But the bird trapped in the gravity of its dreams, its shadow lets out a nightmare scream, its wings are motionless and its feet bound. This is certainly a metaphor for the colonized person who cannot move wherever he wants for political, ethnic, racial, and economic reasons. The wings, symbol of freedom are tied, their feet tied ... The freedom to come and go does not exist. But there is a song, a song that is poetry. Poetry, we can interpret, is a form that the colonized has to decolonize”.

The autobiographical book ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is the first in a seven-volume series that reveals how literature helps to overcome trauma caused by injustice and racism. The book begins by telling Angelou's life when she was three years old and was sent to her grandmother's home in Arkansas and ends when Angelou becomes pregnant at 16. Angelou lived and felt intensely racial segregation in the southern United States, a time for violence against blacks. White supremacy struck even within the school, where blacks were thought to be intellectually inferior. The author shows how she can overcome the inferiority, racism, and prejudice complex through writing. His autobiography becomes a work of literature for poetics and aesthetics while denouncing the oppression and lack of freedom of peoples considered ‘inferior.’ In this respect, postcolonial studies are important to read the author's work.

Angelou’s Tone

The hypothesis is that Maya Angelou, a poet in the English language, represents voices and discourses that dismantle that absolute ‘truth’ of the colonizer over the other, the ‘inferior and less classified.’ Black and female, the author, suffered various forms of discrimination because of her race and gender and was an activist in African countries such as Ghana and Egypt. Therefore, it is valid to compare that the author reveals elements that appear in postcolonial authors, such as denunciation of social injustice, racism, and prejudice. It is asked how Angelou, in a way, observes what Gautam suggests that the intellectual colonized do to decolonize, that is, to ‘lay the foundations for hope’. Therefore, it is important to discuss the extent to which a US-born author, being black, associates with other ‘doomed from the earth’ living in other countries. This is why postcolonial studies are of great relevance.

Postcolonialism, intended to spell out what was neglected by Eurocentric currents, has brought to the agenda discussions on topics such as colonial oppression, social inequalities, and authoritarianism, among others, and provides the plurality of voices in both the critical and fictional aspects. As Wagner-Martin states, postcolonialism is part of the list of concepts that are both useless and indispensable.

Postcolonial literature is the literature produced by those peoples who were colonized by the European imperial forces. Hayani claims that the postcolonial term covers all cultures affected by the imperial process from the time of colonization to the present day. The postcolonial questions and subverts the ‘imperial discursive formations.’ Hence postcolonial cultures ‘are inevitably hybridized and involve a dialectical relationship between European concepts of ontology and epistemology and the drive to create and recreate independent local identity.

Frantz Fanon in The Damned of the Earth (1968) was the first theorist to propose decolonization, and for his memory is very important (Dolgusheva 29). Since the memory of the colonized is often only the memory of the colonizer, that history imposed by the dominator that erases everything that belongs to the world of the colonized, rescuing the memory of the colonized is an important step towards his self-esteem. Writing about memory, revisiting history, and being able to talk about its place, being able to make your voice heard, is, therefore, a means of saying stereotypical truths, thus a means of decolonization. For the colonizer, as Fanon says, is not content to steal the colonized mind, but ‘by a perverse logic goes deep into his past and disfigures and destroys it.’ For Fanon, the violence of the colonizer arouses the violence of the colonized.

On the other hand, violence can be diluted in the words of a poet, and this is a form of resistance. As Hayani says, ‘literature can be a more powerful weapon than many cannons. Thus, the issues of resistance, rewriting, and contradiction to a colonizing discourse through Maya Angelou's poetry are revealing from counter-speech to oppressive speech. Although of American nationality, being black, she shares all the problems of segregation and prejudice of a privileged white society.

Angelou’s Voice

The scholar Wagner-Martin, in criticizing colonialist literature and the allegories that generate stereotypes about the colonizers, states that the ‘ideological function of this mechanism, besides prolonging colonialism, is to de-historicize and de-socialize the conquered world, to present it as a ‘fact of life’ and that those who are part of the colonized world are mere bystanders. The author argues that the role of ‘Third World’ literature, postcolonial works of literature, is to deny the earlier European denial of cultures in conjunction with indigenous languages ​​and forms. This is exactly what one believes Maya Angelou's poetry as ‘Third World Literature’ invites them to reflect on.

Maya Angelou is a black American “memorialist” poet named Marguerite Annie Johnson. Born April 4, 1928, in Missouri and died May 2014. In addition to being known for her poetry and her work as a memorialist (also called literary autobiography), her struggles as a civil rights activist are detachable. He has published seven autobiographies, three essay books, and several poetry books, received many awards, and more than 50 honorary titles. The first autobiographical book that has many literary qualities is titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which portrays the life of a black teenager in the United States who has yet to move from her parents' home to her grandmother's. At the age of 3, at age eight is raped by her stepfather. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is also the title of an Angelou poem that reveals the author's political thinking very well.

In the first chapters of the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Marguerite recounts her life as a black girl in the city of Stamps. This is the moment when Maya becomes aware of her skin color, but it does not please her. Living with his brother Bailey, his grandmother Momma, and his uncle help to understand racial segregation in Stamps, the city where Maya lived in the southern state of Arkansas. She realizes the situation in which people were subjected because of the color of their skin, and little Maya also became a victim of racism.

Despite the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1863, southern states that favored slavery supported the racist practice of segregation as a form of social Darwinism. This reality lasted until the 1960s. Despite her grandmother's reasonable financial situation, Maya witnessed white children humiliating their grandmother and also saw her uncle being forced to hide during a hunt for Ku Klux Klan members. One understands what the impact on a child's life is of having to experience violence against people who were like her intensely; In her childhood, Maya cultivated fear and a desire to distance herself from her appearance. One realizes this from the following passage: “If growing up is painful for a southern black girl, being aware of their difference is worse. It was an unnecessary insult”.

Some problems affected Marguerite's life even more. She goes to live with her mother in St. Louis and is raped by Mr. Freeman, because of what happened, Maya was left without speaking. Fortunately, upon returning to Stamps, she meets Miss Flowers and has her as an example of a strong woman for her life. Flowers helps Maya with the problem of muteness; she devotes herself to readings and speaks again. A teenager working at a white lady's house, Maya, has her name changed to Mary. This reflects well the employer's colonizing attitude, believes to be the “owner” of the colonized.

In her elementary school graduation, Maya tells of a white speaker's speech limiting the intellect of black people, as if they were doomed to manual labor and lack the intellectual capacity to become Galileo, Edisons, and Madame Curies. The following quote addresses this situation: “White children would have a chance to become Galileus and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (girls were not even included) would try to be Jesse Owens and Joe Louises”.

One notes that such discourse is analyzed in the work of Dolgusheva on how the colonizer sees the 'other' colonized (29). The author believes that “at the limit, the colonizer's supreme ambition, he [the colonized] should come into existence only based on the colonizer's needs, that is, to become pure colonized” (Dolgusheva 35). It seems that Angelou's poems, as well as his literary autobiographies, somehow reflect the author's theory about issues of prejudice, stereotypes, and the lack of freedom of a colonized.

About the discourse of the colonizer concerning the colonized, the theorist Gautam has been discussing. The author explores the question of the destruction of the identity of the ‘other,’ that is, the colonized, which is characterized by the derogatory, degrading discourse of the colonizer, the European, the central man as if it were ‘inferior.’ One of the decolonization strategies pointed out by Gautam would be the use of loopholes left by the colonizer. In this case, mimicry and mockery are effective in dismantling this speech. This notion is noticeable in Angelou's work, for example, when it reverses and subverts the ‘norms’ of the colonizer and oppressor. In Chapter 8 of her autobiographical work, Maya Angelou recounts her experience working in a white woman's house, and this woman's colonizing superiority baptized Maya with another name that pleased her and facilitated her domination of Angelou. Tired of the situation, Maya ends up joking about getting Mrs. Cullinan out of her mind.


The poem ‘’I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ relates through the hallmarks of postcolonial theory. After analyzing the works, denunciation strategies against the colonizing discourse are identified. Maya Angelou's own memorialist writing can be associated as one of the forms of decolonization. The voice within Angelou's text became the metaphor for the caged bird's song. It is not because the US is an imperialist country that there are no colonizing practices within society. One understands that the country not only carries an identity, which is that of the white, colonizing, culturally superior, as many people see. The US can be considered a great power in the world in many ways, but there is a story within this society that smothers other identities that have been fragmented. One note that they cannot fall into the limitation of what the ‘other’ is and cannot think that the US is formed by a centralized society that has the same interests and thinks alike. There is the marginalized and oppressed ‘other’ within a culture that the world sees as dominant.

Several questions arise as one reads Maya Angelou. To what extent, for example, is there a suggestion for a ‘third space’ and a negotiation with the colonizing discourse, or is there a denial of all their positions that place the colonized as inferior. It seems that her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, addresses some issues raised by Gautam. It includes the strategic practices of subjectivation whereby it is realized that the oppressed can express their voice, thus promoting the rewriting of Western imaginary, human, and historical culture. The fundamental argument is that ‘singing’ or denouncing by writing itself is one of the visible strategies of Angelou.

Works Cited

  • Angelou, Maya. The complete collected poems. London: Hachette UK, 2013.
  • Dolgusheva, Olga. 'Cultural- And Self-Identification in African American Women's Poetry: Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde.' Literary Process: Methodology, Names, Trends, 2018, pp. 28-37. Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, doi:10.28925/2412-2475.2018.11.2837.
  • Gautam, Shruti. 'From Pen to Print: Autobiographical Compositions of Maya Angelou.' Motifs: An International Journal of English Studies, vol 2, no. 1, 2016, p. 63. Diva Enterprises Private Limited, doi:10.5958/2454-1753.2016.00008.8.
  • Hayani, Risma. 'Figurative Language on Maya Angelou Selected Poetries.' Script Journal: Journal of Linguistic and English Teaching, vol 1, no. 2, 2016, p. 131. Universitas Widya Gama Mahakam, doi:10.24903/sj.v1i2.30.
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2015.
16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now