An Analysis of Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’

Author of analysis: Erwin Cabucos, Date of writing 15 February 2022

The purpose of writing this analysis: This analysis shows the importance of poetic techniques from which students can base their discussion on the meaning of the poem. This analysis also shows students the usefulness of PEEL paragraphs as an effective way to structure arguments in the discussion. The analysis further shows linking historical events in elaborating discussion points as well as using evidence from the text to support ideas.

Start of Analysis:

Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ is a protest poem that voices out the inequality between black and white Americans. It illustrates the oppression of the Blacks in contrast with the freedom of the Whites during Segregation in American history. The poem uses powerful metaphors, symbolism and personification that educate readers in the world of racist practices and policies. 

To begin with, the poem compares the Blacks to a caged bird (line 15) who can seldom see through his bars of rage (line 11). This use of metaphor identifies the miserable situation of black Americans who seemingly live in prison and whose future is blocked by its walls. In contrast, the poem compares the Whites to a free bird who leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream to the current ends (lines 1-4). This metaphor highlights the joyful condition in which white Americans live without restrictions in society. They are so free that they can dare to ‘claim the sky’ their own, indicating their dominance above any other race in the universe. These comparisons have powerfully illustrated the unequal worlds between Blacks and Whites when racist policies exist such as Segregation. 

Moreover, Angelou’s poem uses symbolism from imageries that depict the extent of inequality in American society. Stanza 4 mentions the ‘fat worms’ that await free bird on a dawn bright lawn’, signifying the plentiful opportunities available for white Americans. These images symbolise better education, job opportunities and career prospect that elicit happiness and a bright future for them. These opportunities are readily available for white Americans during the time of Segregation especially the laws and policies were on their side. The last line in stanza 4 shows the whites’ closeness to acquiring those opportunities, aptly described as having them ‘named their own’. However, the ‘fat worms’ has a contrasting symbolism for the Blacks. They have ‘grave of dreams’ on which they stand. Consequently, they shout on a ‘nightmare scream’ (stanza 5). This gloomy representation of opportunities for the Blacks alludes to the limited and fewer prospects for the African Americans who, despite their effort to excel, are still denigrated by racist policies in schools, at workplaces, in politics, in business fields, social venues and other areas of American life. Their dreams to succeed, to acquire leadership roles, to live happily are ruined like buried in graveyards.  

Finally, Maya Angelou’s poem sends a message that the inequality between the two races is a real human experience affecting lives. The Blacks have wings that are clipped and feet that are tied (stanza 2) indicating the range of limitations placed on blacks or coloured people in many aspects of society: in education, jobs and career promotion. Even on buses and public toilets, the coloured people were given second class provisions. The divide between white and coloured people has debilitated people’s opportunities to live comfortably in society, and it brings poverty, low self-determination and low self-esteem. The poem further describes the tendency for the black American to sing with a fearful trill, on the distant hill, longing for freedom (stanza 3). This emotionally signifies the raw and the basic way of a human being to send for help for his or her need to be heard, like those in the ancient forms of chanting addressed to God in prayer. The blacks’ plea for freedom is only communicated through singing, by voice, by words, hoping that it could be heard from the distance. The poem’s use of personification has powerfully illuminated the emotional and human experience of racism and segregation. 

Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ strongly evokes the message of protest about the inequality between Blacks and Whites during Segregation in American history. It echoes the emotion within such a horrible experience, and it illustrates the oppression of the Blacks in contrast with the freedom of the Whites.  It is a powerful poem that uses meaningful metaphors, personification and imageries that educate readers on the consequences of living in a racist society and call for changing the wrongs of the past. 

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