When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free,
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings.
~Third Stanza of the poem "Sympathy" (1899) by Paul Laurence Dunbar; title of Maya Angelou's book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical novel (although there are fictional aspects to the work), which highlights the racism she faced growing up, as well as the importance of books and literacy, and tells the story of her life from the age of three until sixteen. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, after the author was extremely disturbed by the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. James Baldwin, Robert Loomis, and others "dared" Maya Angelou to write an autobiography. At first she was reluctant, because she considered herself a poet, but in 1970 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings won the National Book Award, and was on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for a few years, the first in a series of six-volumes by Maya Angelou.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, young Maya does not feel she's as beautiful as the rest of her immediate family, but realizes she is smart and sensitive. She adores her older brother, Bailey, Jr., and is an avid reader. Books are her salvation, including the works of Shakespeare. The children travel by train when they're three and four years old by themselves to live with their grandmother, called "Momma", and Uncle Willy, in Stamps, Arkansas. Momma has a general store, "the Store", where Maya and Bailey spend a lot of their time, and she provides a home for Maya and Bailey while their parents live in California and St. Louis. Affected by ugly, senseless racism, Maya must learn to protect her growing strength and dignity. This autobiographical novel has been the target of censorship in homes and schools over the years since it's publication, because it tackles some very difficult subjects. Maya Angelou writes with remarkable spirit. The horrific event of her childhood--she was raped at the age of 8 by her mother's boyfriend--shatters my heart. Somehow she found the courage and strength to go on, and much later to put her story into words, with honesty and compassion.