I Know why the Caged Bird Sings – Model Answer

Question 1: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a strong message against oppression.
Comment with reference to the text.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is written by Maya Angelou and is named after her autobiographical novel. She is a black American and experienced the segregation throughout her life as a black woman; the poem can be seen as a commentary on the system of racism in America. In this essay I will explain how the free bird enjoys all the privileges in society and how, in contrast, the caged bird is denied them, and how it affects them.

The free bird enjoys a life of freedom and satisfaction. The verbs used by the poet to describe the free bird reflects the privileges it enjoys. ‘Floats downstream till the current ends’ connotes the ease with which the bird moves. It suggests how progress is such a natural thing for the free bird. In fact, the wind facilitates the movement; the obstacles to its advancement are minimal. This is a reference to how the social system that is in place favours one community. The laws, the opportunities, the resources are distributed in such a way that the community which enjoys power will possess almost all of it.

The use of the phrase ‘dares to claim/name the sky’ is significant as it shows how the free bird has the authority to name the sky. It connotes ownership and the ability to dream big and achieve those dreams.

The phrase ‘fat worms’ is a metaphor for the material prosperity that the free bird enjoys. The adjective ‘fat’ connotes the excessive supply of resources. The privileged community in society are thus satisfied with an abundance of resources, usually at the expense of the ones who were oppressed.

In comparison to the free bird, the caged bird is described with words such as ‘stalks’ and ‘fearful’. These words connote the extreme difficulty in moving and the terror in which they live. A stalking person cannot keep his back straight and has to bend down and move, and in the poem, the bird has only the space of a ‘narrow’ cage to move around. The idea of being in this claustrophobic space when you are meant to flap your wings and glide through the skies is traumatic and disturbing. This is the reality in which the blacks in America had to live. Their ‘wings are clipped’ and ‘feet are tied’ is a very powerful visual phrase which reflects how the blacks were denied equal opportunities, denied resources and deprived of the dignity as humans. As opposed to the easy progress of the free bird, the caged bird cannot move beyond the cage even though it has the potential.

Due to the struggles the caged bird has to go through, they begin to feel devalued. The poem says that they can ‘seldom through its bars of rage,’ which reflects how the marginalized communities are not only caged by their oppressors, but also by their anger and their perception of themselves. The poet also writes that the cage bird ‘stands on the grave of dreams,’ meaning that their capacity to dream and their future hopes are stripped away by continuously being under the rule of the majority. They are referred to as a shadow. This is significant as the caged bird’s identity as a bird is stripped away piece by piece. While the main thing that makes a bird a bird is its wings, the caged bird’s wings are clipped. This is an allegory for the black man’s freedom taken away from him, which is to take away the main ingredient about being human: Freedom. Without this, the marginalized communities become a mere shadow of themselves as they live in another’s world. A shadow is just an outline of the real object, without true value or significance. Likewise, the caged bird feels like a shadow; a mere outline of its true identity.

While the above paragraphs elaborate on how the comparison of the free bird and the caged bird shows the atrocities that are committed against the oppressed, it should also be noted that there is a presence behind the ‘clipped wings’ and the ‘feet that are tied.’ The bird was not born that way, but was tied by an external force. The writer emphasizes this reality by repeating the lines ‘wings are clipped and feet are tied.’ It can be taken as a call for action to fix the broken system which completely disregards the basic human dignity of the minorities.

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