Quotes from Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings cover

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"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," a famous book by Maya Angelou, is the first in a series of seven autobiographical novels. The book has been popular since it was first published in 1969. Oprah Winfrey, who read the novel when she was 15, said in a forward to the 2015 edition of the book, "... here was a story that finally spoke to the heart of me." These quotes show the searing journey Angelou traveled transforming from a victim of rape and racism into a self-possessed, dignified young woman. 


In the book, Angelou's character, Maya, "confronts the insidious effects of racism and segregation in America at a very young age," according to SparkNotes. Racism and bigotry are major themes in the novel, as the following quotes make clear.

  • "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." - Preface
  • "I remember never believing that whites were really real." - Chapter 4
  • "They don't really hate us. They don't know us. How can they hate us?" - Chapter 25
  • "How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur." - Chapter 30

Religion and Morality

Angelou—and her protagonist in the novel, Maya—was "raised with a strong sense of religion, which serves as her moral guide," according to GradeSaver. And that sense of religion and morality permeate the novel.

  • "I knew that if a person truly wanted to avoid hell and brimstone, and being roasted forever in the devil's fire, all she had to do was memorize Deuteronomy and follow its teaching, word for word." - Chapter 6
  • See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking." - Chapter 36

Language and Knowledge

The description on the back cover of the 2015 edition of the novel, notes that the book "captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make things right." Probably more than anything, it is the power of Angelou's words—and her emphasis on understanding—that helped to shine a light on the harsh realities of bigotry and racism.

  • "Language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone that separates him from the lower animals." - Chapter 15
  • "All knowledge is spendable currency, depending on the market."​ - Chapter 28


The novel covers the years from when Maya is 3 until she turns 15. Much of the book is about Maya's attempt to face bigotry and degradation. Finally, though, near the end of the novel she also sees the honor in surrendering—giving in—when necessary.

  • "Like most children, I thought if I could face the worst danger voluntarily, and triumph, I would forever have power over it." - Chapter 2
  • "We are the victims of the world's most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It's all right if we do a little robbing now." - Chapter 29
  • "At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice." - Chapter 31

Fitting In

In a parable for the novel—and the world around her—Maya wanders around town one night and decides to sleep in a car in a junkyard. The next morning she awakes to find a group of teenagers, composed of many races, living in the junkyard, where they get along well and are all good friends.

  • "I was never again to sense myself to solidly outside the pale of the human race." - Chapter 32


Angelou, Maya, and Oprah Winfrey. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ballantine Books, 2015.

GradeSaver, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide.”

SparkNotes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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Your Citation
Lombardi, Esther. "Quotes from Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-caged-bird-sings-quotes-740175. Lombardi, Esther. (2021, September 7). Quotes from Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-caged-bird-sings-quotes-740175 Lombardi, Esther. "Quotes from Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-caged-bird-sings-quotes-740175 (accessed May 29, 2023).