I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Strong Black Women

Though Maya struggles with insecurity and displacement throughout her childhood, she has a remarkable number of strong female role models in her family and community. Momma, Vivian, Grandmother Baxter, and Bertha Flowers have very different personalities and views on life, but they all chart their own paths and manage to maintain their dignity and self-respect. None of them ever capitulates to racist indignities.

Maya also charts her own path, fighting to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and she does so with the support and encouragement of her female predecessors. Maya notes at the end of Chapter 34 that the towering character of the black American woman should be seen as the predictable outcome of a hard-fought struggle. Many black women fall along the way. The ones who can weather the storm of sexism and racism obviously will shine with greatness. They have survived, and therefore by definition they are survivors.

Literature

Maya’s first love is William Shakespeare. Throughout her life, literature plays a significant role in bolstering her confidence and providing a world of fantasy and escape. When feeling isolated in St. Louis, she takes refuge in the library. She describes Mrs. Bertha Flowers as being like women in English novels. Mrs. Flowers helps Maya rediscover her voice after her rape by encouraging her to use the words of other writers and poets. Maya continually quotes and refers to the literature she read throughout her childhood. For instance, at one point she simply gives San Francisco the title “Pride and Prejudice” without referring specifically to Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. Bailey appreciates Maya’s love of literature. He often presents her with gifts, such as the book of Edgar Allen Poe’s work that he and Maya read aloud while walking in their backyard in Stamps.

Naming

Maya’s real name is Marguerite, and most of her family members call her Ritie. The fact that she chooses to go by Maya as an adult, a name given to her by her brother, Bailey, indicates the depth of love and admiration she holds for him. When Maya reunites with her mother and her mother’s family in St. Louis at age eight, one of her uncles tells her the story of how she got this name. Thus, finding her family is connected with finding her name and her identity. Indeed, for African Americans in general, Maya notes, naming is a sensitive issue because it provides a sense of identity in a hostile world that aims to stereotype blacks and erase their individuality and identity. Consequently, given the predominance of pejoratives like nigger so often used to cut down blacks, Maya notes the danger associated with calling a black person anything that could be loosely interpreted as insulting. Besides the obvious fact that Mrs. Cullinan does not take the time to get Maya’s name right in the first place, Mrs. Cullinan wishes to manipulate Maya’s name for her own convenience, shortening it to Mary, illustrating that she cares very little about Maya’s wishes or identity. Maya becomes enraged, and the incident inspires her to commit her first act of resistance.