Angelou places both Vivian and even herself within the tradition of black women with strong characters and honorable survival mechanisms. Angelou says she often hears people react to the formidable character of black women in America as if they are surprised or offended. This, in turn, surprises Angelou. She feels that black women must struggle so much to survive that, when they do, their formidable character is predictable. She goes on to say that this inevitable strength of character should be respected if not accepted with enthusiasm. Maya demonstrates that the universal struggles of adolescence combine with the stresses of race and gender to make black women’s struggles all the more challenging.
Even if one is unacquainted with Angelou’s poem of the same name, the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings seems particularly apt given the subject matter of the book. Maya compares herself, her black female role models, and even her entire race to the bird who is locked in a cage but nevertheless sings. Maya implies that by reading her autobiography, the reader will come to understand why the bird sings despite being locked up in a cage. At the same time, the title implies the possibility that the reason why the caged bird sings could be a secret, one that Maya holds close inside her, away from the tampering, meddling forces of the prison master. We can guess why the bird sings—perhaps to break free, perhaps to provide solace to itself, perhaps because its voice is its only means of action or communication, or perhaps because the bird feels joy knowing something others do not. Maya’s widely varied and insightful depiction of the African-American struggle affords many possible reasons.