We read “I Know why the Caged Bird Sings” in my HL English class in October 2017 and I really loved it. Maya Angelou truly has a way with words. Since it was the first book we’d read that semester, we were assigned a mini-essay to comment about her prologue. Here was mine.
Not all works of literature use para-textual features in the same way – or even at all – but Maya Angelou’s prologue in her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, is a feature of the text which should not be overlooked, for it sets the stage for her to share her immensely difficult but powerful personal story.
The piece’s title, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, is an allegory referring to her realization of the beauty and meaning held back by the cage created by her physical, psychological, and interpersonal circumstances. Knowing this to be the central tension in Angelou’s life, and therefore her autobiography, the prologue presents itself to readers with a dual purpose.
First, it establishes the elements of Maya Angelou’s life as they are at the beginning – filled with both internal and external struggle. At the same time, it mirrors the bittersweet optimism of the novel to follow by creating a metaphorical circumstance of despair – Angelou’s disappointing church experience – and turning it into an anecdote of joyful freedom; albeit with a fantastic undertone.
The prologue follows Maya Angelou’s seven- or eight-year-old self as everything starts to go wrong on an Easter Day. For readers attempting to understand Angelou’s autobiographical journey, it is a key insight into what exactly her youthful self considered to be holding her back from freedom and happiness and thus trapping her in a metaphorical bird cage. In the prologue, Angelou finds herself trapped in “the silly church” on Easter Day and ultimately it is clear that all the ways she is “caged” boil down to two things: her physical and psychological circumstances.
Much of Angelou’s autobiography focuses on her struggle with embracing – and even, ultimately, loving – her own physical appearance. The prologue contains plenty of evidence of young Angelou’s attitudes towards her physical appearance: she regrets that the dress she wore on Easter Day “didn’t hide [her] skinny legs” and “made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs”. As if this derogatory description wasn’t already bad enough to hear coming from a young girl, she then goes on to describe the rest of her appearance: “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy clack hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that could hold a number two pencil”. It is clear early on from the prologue that Maya Angelou’s image of herself and her physical appearance causes much of her unhappiness. In her body, she feels. Paradoxically, both too skinny and too big, and hates her skin colour, hair and body shape. This struggle is cemented when she describes her life a “black ugly dream”.
Not only is her body a source of disgust and disdain, making her feel trapped in a circumstance she cannot stand, but it literally is the source of her need to escape the church. After mumbling the lines to the song in the church, she runs out as pee starts to trickle “down [her] legs and into [her] Sunday socks”. And yet, once she listens to her body and runs, whilst peeing, back to her house, she feels joyful for “being liberated from silly church [and] the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a busted head”. Her liberation from the church, because, physically, she was compelled to run out, is symbolic for her tension with her physical appearance, while perhaps foreshadowing the result of that conflict.
Furthermore, Maya Angelou provides us with a sparkling description of her own imaginative thought processes. However, her intent upon noticing and criticizing colour not only in herself and her physical appearance, but in that of the world around her creates an unhealthy second source of suffering. Her psychological disposition compels her to separate things into either being part of a “black ugly dream” she wishes she could wake up from or a magical dream with “sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world”. Unfortunately, this mindset is the very source of her unhappiness with her dress on Easter Day. Although her imagination is natural given her young age in the passage, the stark comparison between her magical imagination and her unhappy reality.
Hence, we can see that her frame of mind is another source of her unhappiness, and thus can be established as yet another source of tension to be dealt with in the novel. As yet again, this tension’s big picture resolution is foreshadowed in the brief anecdote provided in the prologue. Arguably, the repetition of the poem “What are you looking at me for? / I didn’t come to stay […] / I just come to tell you, / it’s Easter Day”, is no mistake. Angelou, ironically, opens her prologue with her younger self in church during an Easter holiday, with everyone “wiggling and giggling over [her] well-known forgetfulness”. And the very poem she is forgetting begins with “ what are you looking at me for?”.
In the prologue, she’s forgotten the poem, whose confident tone seems to proclaim strength and power, and she runs out of the church shame. However, the parallels between the poem and Angelou’s subsequent actions make for a comedic element while also perhaps cleverly suggesting Maya Angelou’s fierceness of will that has yet to be unleashed.
In conclusion, there is a lot of purpose to Maya Angelou’s anecdotal prologue in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. First, it establishes what her metaphorical bird cage is composed of. Readers get a glimpse of the internal and external tensions in her youth, as she struggles to come to terms with her physical appearance and her personal perspective on the world. At the same time, the prologue spins a tale with a resolution – one where Angelou does, in fact, escape a place that was causing her discomfort. Thus, readers are also led to expect a resolution of Angelou’s primary tensions, all of which result in the powerful, confident influencer Maya Angelou was.