Have you ever been locked in a room, either by accident or out of your own design? I had been locked from the outside more than once; so I can relate. You have only a window and the door all to yourself: one provides a microscopic view of the world while the other denies you entry into the world.
Out there, there are infinite opportunities, possibilities, and endless prospects. But you can’t access any of these. You can’t go anywhere. You are trapped. You want to do great exploits but you can’t do all that because you are locked in and thus, your movement is restricted.
In the beginning, you are calm. Along the way, you become restive. You walk round the room, you sit and you sleep, hoping for help; hoping things will be better. But you wake and nothing changes. You hit the wall, bang your fists on the door till your knuckles hurt. You sit afterwards, resigned to passivity and inaction, succumbed to fate.
The foregoing illustration defines the life of the typical black American before the 60s and 70s as symbolised by the caged bird in Maya Angelou’s poem; crushed under the sledgehammer of the oppressive mechanism of toxic racial discrimination and segregation.
This is apparent in most Afro-American writings before and after the period. It is there in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Richard Wright’s Native Son, August Wilson’s Fences, et cetera.
Bigger Thomas in Native Son for example wants to become an aviator but he can’t be one because of his black skin. He wants to part of the society but not when he and his kind are conditioned to a ghetto. He wants to be many good things but encased in the cage of his blackness, he is denied many social privileges. He resigns himself to passivity, self-hating and self-shaming.
Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird explores this topical issue too; the racial discrimination and its effect of limiting prospects for an Afro-American.
Read the Poem: CAGED BIRD by Maya Angelou
Bigger Thomas is conditioned to a rung of the society where he could barely eke out a living for himself and more than anything feel human and breathe the air of freedom. Like the “caged bird” in Maya Angelou’s poem, he only watches but can’t do anything.
The poem is an allegorical reference to the Afro-American situation. By contrasting the free bird to the caged bird, the sky to the cage, endless opportunities to no opportunity, the poet subtly juxtaposes the life of a black American with that of a white American.
The poem particularly provides, through the use of contrast, an insight to what the caged bird misses, that is freedom. Beyond the surface level, it juxtaposes the opportunity-imbued life of the white Americans with the poor living conditions of the segregated black Americans.
Caged Bird is a poem of thirty-eight lines divided into six stanzas. The first and second stanzas have seven lines each; the third stanza has eight lines; the fourth and fifth stanzas each with four lines; and stanza six contains eight lines.
This structure is very important as it lends credence to the message the poem conveys. The first stanza highlights the luxuries of the free bird; it has seven lines. The second stanza contrasts the first with the limited movement of the caged bird; it also has seven lines.
This applies to the other stanzas where there is contrast; the fourth and fifth stanza each with four lines. It is easy to deduce from this structure that the poet believes that the free bird and the caged bird are equals, freedom or no freedom.
The caged bird can do the exact same thing the free bird does and even better if his movement is unrestricted too. The only thing he needs to reach his potential is freedom; this Maya Angelou foregrounds in Stanza 3 and 6.
In Stanza 1 (Lines 1-7), the poet throws up the clear image of a “daring” free bird in the mind of her readers.
The bird “leaps on the back of the wind” and “dips his wing in the orange sun rays”, daring to “claim the sky”.
The free bird is an iconic representation of freedom. It has freeness to “leap” on infinite opportunities the sky, the sun and such element as the wind offer. At the peak of his freedom and getting the most out of limitless opportunities, it “dares to claim the sky” as his own.
The free bird is an ideal representation of a free man uninhibited by any constraints. Within the contextual situation of a segregating American society, the free bird may compare largely with the white American, opened to endless opportunities.
Stanza 2 (Lines 8-14) is introduced with a “but”, a signifier of contrast. It prepares the reader for the contrastive features to expect in this stanza.
The poet gives the description of another bird; “wings clipped and feet tied”, held back by “his bars of rage”.
This bird is much unlike the first bird. He is a direct contrast of the first. He does not have the freedom of the first to fly and explore the sky; he’s rather locked in “a narrow cage”, “wings clipped and feet tied” as he “stalks down the narrow cage”.
In “his bars of rage”, “he opens his throat to sing”. What does he sing about? The reader finds out in the third stanza.
The “wings clipped and feet tied” bird is definitely a definition of the segregated and racially discriminated African American. He is conditioned to a social living structure that inhibits him from reaching his potential. A bird’s place is never the cage; it’s the sky. The descriptions of the second bird in the second stanza clearly negate all the visual imageries of ideal freedom exemplified by the first bird in the first stanza.
In a way, the poet contrasts the endless opportunities and reach of the white American with the limited opportunities (if there is any) of and the conditioned living standard of the black American.
Stanza 3 (Lines 15-22) is a continuation of the last line of the previous stanza. The “caged bird” sings with “fearful trill of things unknown”; he longs to be heard “on the distant hill” as he “sings of freedom”.
The “caged bird” knows what it means to be caged and restrained by bars. He longs for freedom and to taste it in the true sense of it.
Here, there is the black American, symbolised by the caged bird, who despite the fear of uncertainty (like Bigger Thomas), wants to be free from segregation; he wants to be part of what Richard Wright describes as the “looming white” society, “the sky”, explore the boundless opportunities and exercise his civil basic rights like the white; “the caged bird”.
There’s a little defiance in this stanza. The caged bird refuses to accept his situation. He challenges his inhibited movement and progress through his song of freedom.
His voice reaching the “distant hill” alludes to the popular civil right activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King Jr who is notable for black-emancipation speeches, one such of which is “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”.
In Stanza 4 (Lines 23-26), there is a transition from the “caged bird” to the “free bird”. The reader is let into the thought pattern of the free bird.
Free of worries, the “free bird” thinks of several luxuries abound; “another breeze”, “wind … on sighing trees”, “fat worms”, and the privilege of “naming the sky his own”. There is a particular emphasis placed on the pleasures that accompany being free.
The free bird can frolic around on “sighing trees”, set himself loose for “another breeze” and peck “fat worms” to fill his stomach with. The white American, whom the free bird seems to represent, lives under a much better living condition, and in this case, can think of optimising his luxuries, chances and opportunities, and of course think of advancing his scope of reach.
In Stanza 5 (Lines 27-30), again, the harsh living reality of the caged bird is contrasted with that of the free bird (as delineated in the previous stanza).
The poet emphasises the bird’s incarceration and limited prospects; “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”.
His inability to reach its potential (as we’ve seen in the free bird) is reflected in a number of dead and unrealised dreams. He stands on “the grave of his dreams”, feeling useless, disturbed by his unrealised dreams; “his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream”. Again, “he opens his throat to sing”.
Interpreting this stanza, I again refer us to Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Literature-in-English recommended text for 2016 – 2020 WAEC and NECO syllabus.
In the text, Bigger Thomas, a black American in his 20s and protagonist, wishes to be an aviator or pilot but he knows it is a pipe dream. How will he become one when his wings are clipped and his feet are tied? He can’t go to an aviation school because he does not have enough education. He does not have enough education because he is not rich. He is not rich because he is black. And because he is black, he can’t be allowed to go to the aviation school.
So, instead of becoming an aviator, he becomes a misunderstood young chap who indulges in self-hate for his inability to change the living conditions of his family. He vents his frustration on the society that has denied him a lot of opportunities.
This is the kind of Afro-American we are looking at in Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird.
Stanza 6 (Lines 31-38) is a repetition of Stanza 3. In repeating the stanza, the poet foregrounds the importance of freedom; that the poem does not merely seek the emotive outpour of its readers but does emphasise freedom as the basic thing no human being should be denied.
In contrasting the prospects and the living conditions of the two birds, Maya Angelou portrays the harsh reality of the caged bird and the luxuries he misses that the free bird enjoys.