Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Caged Bird) is based on her life in the early ages. This autobiographical novel is the first volume of her five-volume autobiography. She was forty-one when the book was published in 1970. At the same time, it was also nominated for a National Book Award (McPherson 21). Caged Bird truly reflects the essence of Angelou's struggle to overcome the restrictions that were placed upon her in a hostile environment. The book deals with issues of racism, rape, drinking, homosexuality, and teenage pregnancy. Angelou writes with a twist of lyrical imagery along with a touch of realism (Moore 50). She was an entertainer before she wrote the book. James Baldwin and the cartoonist Jules Feiffer urged Angelou to try to write an autobiography, despite the fact that she was a little late for a career in writing (Lupton 51).
In Caged Bird, Angelou describes the insecure position of a black girl in the Southern America during the 1930s and 1940s. The novel covers her life from the age of three to the age of sixteen, when she becomes a mother. She and her older brother, Bailey, move to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas after their parents divorced. There, she is raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. After the incident, Angelou remains speechless for five years and finally recovers with the help of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, her grandmother's friend (Lupton 51). Later, she has sex with a young man in the neighborhood to prove that she is not a lesbian. Consequently, she gets pregnant and gives birth to a son at the end of Caged Bird (Lupton 52). .
Angelou read a lot as a child and admired African American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. She cites the last line of Dunbar's poem "Sympathy", which is "I know why the caged bird sings," for the title of her first autobiography (Bloom 2). However, the caged birds in the poem and the novel are slightly different.