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Remembering Maya Angelou: ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and Beyond

Marcia Lynx Qualey By Marcia Lynx Qualey Published on March 25, 2017
This article was updated on April 18, 2017


There is a photo of Egyptian-American activist Aya Hijazi, sitting patiently in an Egyptian court, where she’s on trial for her work helping street children. Hijazi’s nose is down in a paperback, and she’s about halfway through. Unlike in photos where she is reunited with her co-defendant husband, in this picture Hijazi’s expression is sternly serious.

The book in Hijazi’s hands is Maya Angelou’s first and most popular memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

It was nearly three years ago that Angelou, one of America’s most celebrated artists, performers, and activists, died in her North Carolina home. But her inspirational books, poems, and songs continue to circulate around the world, from the microphones of the Black Lives Matter movement to paint on the Israeli Separation Wall.

Angelou was born in Missouri, as Marguerite Johnson, on April 4, 1928, and the stories of her life and her art are inextricably intertwined. Her books were, as Gary Younge has called them, “performance art,” with her “message of personal and social uplift” firmly at their center.

Angelou became pregnant at 16 in the pre-WWII, apartheid South, and she was never able to attend college. But, as she worked around the country and raised her son Guy, she read in a wide array of subjects, including philosophy, literature, French, Arabic, and Fanti. Her first art was on the stage—dancing, acting, and singing—and she recorded both popular and award-winning music.

Writing as performance

After establishing herself as an accomplished performer in the 1950s, in 1961 Angelou moved to Egypt, where she worked as a reporter at The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana, where she wrote and performed for various media.

Angelou returned to the US in 1964, where she spent four difficult years before she began work on her popular memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou was 41 before her first and most abiding work was published. This short, plainly told autobiography focuses on Angelou’s childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, and it heralded a bold new movement in performative life-writing. From 1969 until her death, Angelou continued to write articles, short stories, poems, TV scripts, memoirs, and documentaries, as well as acting, directing, and, at the end of her career, teaching American Studies.

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Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library

Angelou’s work was perhaps at its zenith of influence in 1993, when she recited "On the Pulse of Morning" at US President Bill Clinton's inauguration. The poem, like some of her others, didn’t age well on the page. But Angelou won a Grammy for her album “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1994. She went on to win two more Grammys for her spoken-word work.

A best-selling poet and memoirist, Angelou’s work was sometimes derided by critics as being too easy to digest and full of simple, uplifting homilies. But like other spoken-word work, the success of Angelou’s poetry is not best marked on the page, but in its performance.

Best-selling, but…
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The United States embraced Maya Angelou, but had an ambivalent relationship with her most celebrated work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Because of its lyric simplicity and relatable life-writing, the book has been assigned in thousands of high-school courses. Since 1983, the book has had thirty-nine public challenges and bans, making it one of the most frequently banned books in the US. According to the American Library Association, parents have been exercised about its frank discussion of rape, its presentation of homosexuality, and some have even called it “anti-white.”

Angelou’s other memoirs were often read in the shadow of this first work. But she continued to publish, and her seventh and final memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, appeared just a year before her death.

Maya Angelou's Performance in CALYPSO HEAT WAVE (1957)

Five more works by Angelou that take a reader beyond I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

Mom & Me & Mom (2013). Angelou’s final book is written in her signature uncomplicated prose. It’s full of details about her early life and her adult relationship with her mother, and how she came to be at ease with the mother who abandoned her. You can read an excerpt at Oprah.Com.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971). This was Angelou’s first collection of poetry, and many were originally song lyrics, recorded during her years as a singer. Critical reaction was mixed, but the book was a popular success, and the poems—like "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"—can be particularly enjoyed by a wide audience. Her poem “The Mothering Blackness” is from this collection.

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas (1976). This was Angelou’s third autobiography. In this book, she describes how she worked a wide range of jobs as a young woman, including "as a shake dancer in night clubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic's shop, taking the paint off cars with my hands."

A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002). This memoir is set from 1964-68, the four years between when Angelou returned from Ghana and when she began writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou later told interviewer Sherryl Connelly that she struggled with this book more than her others: "I didn't know how to write it. I didn't see how the assassination of Malcolm [X], the Watts riot, the breakup of a love affair, then [the assassination of Dr.] Martin [Luther] King [Jr.], how I could get all that loose with something uplifting in it.” You can read an excerpt on NPR books.

And Still I Rise (1978). This collection contains Angelou’s best-known poem, “Still I Rise,” which has moved around the world, and even has been painted on a part of the Israeli Separation Wall. Like most of Angelou’s poetry, it’s best heard as she spoke it. “Still I Rise” is available in several recordings.

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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