The themes in Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird are freedom versus bondage, discrimination, and unfulfilled dreams.
(1) FREEDOM VERSUS BONDAGE
In Caged Bird, the poet pits freedom against bondage. She idealises freedom with the free bird and bondage with the caged bird. The free bird enjoys all the liberties that come with freedom while the caged bird is denied of freedom, living on the grave of his dreams.
Maya Angelou juxtaposes the two ideas using the “the free bird” and “the caged bird”. Beyond the surface meaning, she contrasts the living conditions of both white and black Americans placing premium on the freedom of black Americans. The black Americans are denied basic living conditions and rights: quality education, enabling environment, good jobs, right to vote among many others. These are basic rights every human being should enjoy and which the white Americans symbolised by “the free bird” enjoy.
Another undercurrent issue in Caged Bird is discrimination. The poem pictures the discrimination of the blacks by the whites. Depicting this with expressions like “bars of rage”, “tied feet” and “clipped wings”, the poet shows the plight of the discriminated ‘negro’.
There is strong racial discrimination within the rank and file of the America society. It has been so structured that there are schools for the black and schools for the white, jobs for the black and jobs for the white, neighbourhood for the black and neighbourhood for the white, restaurants for the black and restaurants for the white. The society is basically segmented this way with the white having the better things and the blacks being stuffed with the left-over.
(3) UNFULFILLED DREAMS
Also addressed in the poem is the issue of unfulfilled dreams. “The caged bird” in the poem is impeded by “bars of rage”, “tied feet” and “clipped wings” from accomplishing his dreams and so he stands on “a grave of his dreams” troubled by “his shadow on a nightmare scream”.
Similarly, the black America is stared in the face by unaccomplished dreams resulting from the denial of his basic rights.