Imagery, Symbolism and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Yesterday’s post-lunch lecture at Write by the Lake covered imagery and symbolism.

Angela Rydell spoke about the former, while Laurel Yourke focused on the latter.

As part of her presentation, Yourke wrote the title of three works up on the word. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings was one of them.

We talked more about the title and its symbolic meaning than the book itself, which was both understandable and too bad, because I find it to be an unusually powerful story of devastating anguish and inspiring resilience.

The Caged Bird is the first in Angelou’s six-volume memoir series. This book describes in intimate detail her growing up in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. She endured many hardships, the most major of which was being raped at the age of eight years old.

Angelou knew the rapist’s identity and said his name-an act that led to his being killed in a form of collective vigilante justice. Concluding that her words, rather than the man’s actions, had led to his death, she stopped speaking for five years.

Mrs. Flowers, a cultivated black woman, leads her out of silence and into a lifelong appreciation of literature. The relationship, and its impact on Angelou, is one of the book’s central elements.

It’s not the only one, though.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is her description of the community’s pride and sense of being connected to a larger black identity. This surfaces when Angelou supplies a fictionalized account of heavyweight champion Joe Louis beating the Italian giant, Primo Carnera. Louis’ knockout victory is a triumph for all black people that occasions extensive celebration for Stamps residents, all of whom were listening intently to the radio account of the bout.

The Caged Bird ends with Angelou as a single mother not knowing quite how to care for her son Guy. She worries initially about crushing the infant, but decides that sleeping with her child in the bed is the natural way, and does it.

This nurturing of new life after she sustained such trauma during her childhood is a fitting image to close this life-affirming book. Angelou caught plenty of criticism, and deservedly so, for her plagiarism of the presidential poem she wrote for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

But this work deserves our attention and appreciation.


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