October 20, 2020
why the caged bird sings

A Detailed Analysis of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Reading Time: 8 minutes


For our appreciation and analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the African-American poet Maya Angelou, we shall take a close look at the following aspects of the poem.

Structure and form of the poem

The themes of the poem

The poetic devices Maya Angelou employs to convey her message to her audience.

A word on the title of  the poem

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Structure and Form of the Poem


I Know Why the Caged  Bird Sings is a six-stanza poem. Each stanza focuses on highlighting the state of the free bird and the caged bird. The poet goes about this in an almost alternating manner.

It is significant to note, however, that the poet devotes most of the lines of  the poem to the plight of the caged bird.

As you can see, stanza one focuses on the condition of the free bird. The fruits of freedom that the free bird enjoys remain a distant dream for the caged bird.

The second and third stanzas go to tell us the unenviable condition of the bird that has been held in captivity all his life.

Stanza four goes back to continue a description of the life of the privileged free bird.

The last two stanzas (five and six) tell us more about the humiliating situation the caged bird finds itself.

The Themes of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” exposes and criticizes the state of affairs in an American society blighted by the scourge of racial discrimination.

The poet employs the metaphor of the different living conditions of two birds to give a disturbing narrative of the stark realities of life in her multi-racial country.

The caged bird represents the blacks who have been denied their freedom and basic natural rights. The free bird, on the other hand, is representative of the privileged white race.

Following are the major themes in the poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“.



1. Effects of Racial Discrimination on the Black Population

African-Americans live like caged birds in their land of birth. The injustices they suffer due to racial bias are many and the effects humiliating.

Here is a country in which the whites are the ones who have an almost exclusive grip on political and economic power. This is what they use to oppress blacks.

The blacks have, for far too long, been denied every opportunity to lead a life befitting all human beings. Like birds in captivity, blacks have been denied their freedom. They cannot move around as freely as the whites do. Neither can they enjoy the same social conditions that are freely available to their fellow white countrymen.

Poverty, low quality educational facilities, inadequate housing and other social amenities are not available to the black population. Thus, the poet paints a disturbing picture of life for the average black person in America.

Given these unacceptable conditions, blacks in America, like the caged bird, can only watch in anger and resentment. They can only look on with envy as their white counterparts live a life of privilege and luxury the way the free bird does.

2. The Importance of Human Freedom and Liberty OR The Themes of Freedom and Privilege

Another major theme in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is the important role freedom and liberty (or the denial of it) can play in the life of every human being.

Like the free bird, freedom has enabled the white population to go very far in every aspect of life – political, economic and social. Blacks, on the other hand, have been reduced to a state of deprivation, anger and despair because of their lack of opportunities.

It is an irony that even though the American society is founded on the ideals of freedom and human dignity, a section of its population has been denied their fundamental human rights for so long. Indeed, this unfortunate situation has its roots in the history of slavery in America.

3. The Theme of Captivity

Let’s now turn our attention to the theme of captivity in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

Captivity is another major theme in the poem. It is what the condition of the caged bird refers to. Captivity is the worst situation in which a people can find themselves. Because a captive is just like a slave.

Like a bird held captive in a cage, the blacks have all  their rights denied them.

Their inability to move around freely is therefore not only physical. Social mobility, for example, is impossible for the average African-American.

In addition, they have limited economic opportunities. Discrimination against the blacks extends to the judicial system. Blacks feel hemmed-in by their own system and the best they can do is to keep crying out for the granting of their freedom.

Clearly, it is for freedom that the caged bird sings. This will take us to

A Word on the Title of the Poem/ The Significance of Singing or Music in the African-American’s Life

Is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” an appropriate title for Maya Angelou’s poem? Definitely, yes. She employs it to develop the theme of the song/singing or music in the poem.

One reason for this is that much of the poem contains references to the singing of the caged bird. So the poet has succeeded in making the title the central point in the poem.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill

Of things unknown but longed for still

And his tune is heard on the distant hill for

The caged bird sings of freedom.

So why does the caged bird sing? The simple answer we have in the poem is this.

Singing a song is the caged bird’s only tool for fighting captivity and oppression. In other words, the oppressed blacks use music in general and songs in particular not only to cope with  the racial injustice and lack of freedom they suffer but also to fight against it.

Apart from religion, music and songs have been known to be two of the popular coping mechanisms available to the oppressed blacks in American society. This was both during the period of slavery and in the years of the civil rights movement.

Blacks in this society used songs to soothe their pain. Further, they had songs that were symbols of defiance and of their struggle for freedom.

A song may appear to be a weak weapon for fighting captivity. But it is the only tool a captive can have since it is coming from the inside, his throat, and therefore cannot be easily taken away.

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

So he opens his throat to sing.

Poetic Devices

Let’s now turn our attention to the poetic devices or techniques in our analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Diction and Imagery

The poet in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings employs certain words and expressions to create poignant images of freedom and captivity. We also have glimpses of the privileged lifestyle of the whites as compared to the lack of opportunities which has become the lot of the oppressed blacks.


Here are examples of diction in the poem and the images that they evoke.

FREEDOM AND PRIVILEGE:  free, freedom, leaps, floats, downstream, wing, dares, claim the sky, trade winds, breeze, fat worms, dawn-bright lawn, names the sky his own,

CAPTIVITY: stalks down, narrow, cage, seldom, bars, rage, wings are clipped, feet are tired, throat, caged, fearlful, trill, longed, distant, sings, grave, dreams, screams

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: rage, throat, sing, things unknown, dreams, shadow, nightmare,

NATURE: bird, wind, downstream, current, sun’s rays, breeze, trees, hills

Note that while the free bird can freely have access to the elements (all opportunities) and “claim the sky as his own“, the hills (personal growth and achievement) are out of reach for the caged bird. (distant hills)


thinks, sings, stands, shouts, opens, floats, leaps, ends, dares, stalks, see, names

These are appropriate to the poem which is  about the ability (or the denial of it) of people to act on their dreams and aspirations.


float, leaps, downstream, current

These are associated with the life of the free bird and, for that matter, the privileged white population.


You must not ignore the following literary devices in your analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings develops around the metaphors of a free bird and one held in captivity.

We’ve already noted that the free bird is a metaphor for the privileged white segment of American society. They are, at the same time, the perpetrators of racial injustice against the black population.

The caged bird that sings represents the blacks that suffer from the effects of racial inequality. Just like a bird that has been denied its most important freedom (to move around and explore the sky and the earth), blacks have been limited in their ability to develop themselves and enjoy a better life.

Here are other instances of metaphor in the poem

bars of rage

grave of dreams


Below are examples of the use of symbols in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The Song:

The song that the caged bird sings can be seen as a symbol of black resistance against white domination. It stands for their hope for the future and their inner strength to fight and demand freedom from their oppressors.


Sky, in the poem, is a symbol of personal development and achievement. Like many other words associated with nature imagery in the poem, the sky is there for only the free bird to claim. In effect, in the American society, it is only the free whites, who have the resources that all humans need to develop and prosper.


Cage, clearly, is a symbol of captivity. It stands for all the impediments put in the way of blacks in their attempt to reach higher and realize their potential.


The most striking irony in Maya Angelou’s poem is this. Freedom is denied one segment of the population of a country that prides itself on the ideals of equal rights, individual freedom and liberty. This is clearly an indictment on a nation that preaches freedom to the rest of the world.


The persona in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings contrasts the carefree, privileged life of the whites to the restrictions placed on blacks in the American society.

Much of the poem’s diction and imagery revolves around the differences in the conditions of these two segments of the society.

The most important words that convey the state of racial inequality in the American society are FREE and CAGED.

The structure of the poem is also built around the poetic device known as contrast.

We can observe that while the first stanza speaks of the fruits of freedom freely available to the whites, the second and third stanzas turn to the opposite direction. These two stanzas speak to the sorry condition of the black race in the same society.

This movement between the two opposite conditions in America continues up to the end of the poem.

Thus, the poet has used the poetic device of contrast to expose and also criticize racial discrimination in her native land. To Maya Angelou, the perpetration of racial injustice is a blot on the conscience of a nation that was founded on the principle of equality for all.


sighing trees

shadow shouts


Below are instances of alliteration in the poem

seldom see

but  a bird

worms waiting

shadow shouts








His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

free bird

caged bird



Note also that all of stanza three is repeated in stanza six


claim the sky

names the sky his own


The poem does not follow any specific rhyme pattern. However, there are few cases of rhyme to note.



I trust that this analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will help you to deal comfortably with any question on the poem.

Click here for the meaning and summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

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