“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sing” By Maya Angelou Review


Novels reflect real life and integrate different aspects of human development through figurative language that reflects human development. This paper focuses on the story I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing by Maya Angelou in general and Maya’s character in particular. Maya is the narrator and the main character who dominates in the novel as a woman of color. Her upbringing story correlates with three developmental theories, including Erikson’s, Havighurst’s, and Piaget’s development theories. It is possible to state that Maya’s personal growth reflects the typical stages of human psychological and cognitive development.

Erikson’s Development Theory

Erikson’s theory of development consists of eight stages that describe psychological evolution of the person. Trust and mistrust are the first stages of Erikson’s eight stages of human developmental theory (Samsanovich, 2021). It is the most crucial stage in every human being, specifically children. Through this stage, human beings connect to the expectations they expect from the world and the people who surround them through trust and mistrust. Children begin to develop behavior-oriented actions towards what they see and experience in their surroundings and upbringing. They get drawn closer and attracted to people who kindly treat them. Thus, trust from children is earned when their expectations from their surrounding world are fulfilled without impartiality.

Maya’s early childhood development is characterized by instances that Erikson defines as trust and mistrust, identity and confusion, and intimacy and isolation. Maya loved and cherished Miss Kirwin and Mrs. Flowers as her role models. Momma and Vivian (mother) also had a significant influence on her. From this point of view, Maya develops trust to adult people, according to Erikson’s theory of development, and it allows her to form a psychologically balanced personality. At the same time, the girl faces isolation in the beginning of the novel because her parents abandoned her, and she lives with her grandmother. Her childhood experience connected with intimacy and isolation is biased from the theoretical perspective.

Beautiful and ugly child experiences form a person’s adult character. Maya was brought up as the Christian, and it influenced her views on morality. Momma raised Maya in a stern adherence to Christian values. Maya was inspired by Momma and Vivian, who raised her with respect and love. These women further encourage Maya to have confidence as an African American. Maya reflects on this topic in the following way: “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. It is an unnecessary insult” (Angelou, 2015, p. 6). Therefore, she tried to avoid evil actions and thoughts as the Christian, but she could not be silent when her black friends were abused and discriminated. This situation has cultivated her adulthood to enlighten African Americans about the racial injustices they face. These views were supported by Maya’s admiration for Vivian and Momma influences her ability to believe in women of color’s strength (Angelou, 2015). Thus, the beautiful experience of love and moral upbringing she receives from Momma and Vivian has become her best self as she grows, but her ugly experience of racial injustice made her social position active.

Every child requires parental figures who provide guidance for self-independency and become motivators to their children in the vast nature of societies. Vivian influences Maya’s life more significantly as she is beautiful, fair, confident in herself and independent. Vivian is a more easy-going individual who makes out a good environment from the worse to see her family protected. Maya’s mother remains judicious and fair despite shooting her partner and working in gambling parlors. Her family was different from other adults for Maya, who describes it in the following lines: “There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine” (Angelou, 2015, p. 73). Later, Vivian’s judicious act influenced Maya to be rational and always independent, but in all cases, the opinions of women who influenced Maya’s development were critical in her formation. The mere presence of these women in Maya’s life give her the role model for psychological development that helps her to develop the adult personality.

Therefore, role models play a significant role in children by aiding them in shaping their behaviors and reaching different decisions as they grow according to Erikson’s theory of personal development. Momma and Vivian are influential role models in Maya’s life, and their positive attitude brings Maya’s comprehension of the strength and potential of hardworking women of color. Momma is an understanding, strong, loving, and caring woman, and these qualities earned her respect in the white community. Vivian is an independent, confident, fair, and beautiful black woman, which influences Maya to see confidence and beauty among all African American women. Momma and Vivian’s contrasting attributes of life inspire Maya to become self-aware about the independence of black women as she grows. Even though Maya faced racism and segregation against African Americans, she also saw how black women could cope with all hardship successfully.

Havighurst’s Development Theory

All stages in personal development are critical in the formation of the adult individual. According to Havighurst’s theory of human development, every person develops through eight stages, including infancy and early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, and later maturity (Hurrelmann & Quenzel, 2018). A person should make efforts to pass to the next stage, which is the challenging process (Rathus, Rogerson, & Berk, 2021). Many people have to cope with lack of parental care, assaults, and abuse while adults evade their responsibilities. The problems on every stage are different, and they correspond to the abilities of the person to solve them. Therefore, it is inevitable that every individual should strive to get out of challenges that come their way to gain victory.

As it was already mentioned, person’s adult character is attributed to ugly and beautiful childhood experiences. African Americans were segregated and discriminated against in the white society, and Maya saw it. She describes this experience in the following way: “One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed…a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful” (Angelou, 2015, p. 131). Maya lived with her grandmother in the South, and black people were not regarded as humans and equals in the white society. Dehumanizing and racist quotes were prevalent such as the presumption that black people are the lowest hierarchy of beings, a class higher than the apes (Angelou, 2015). Whites were deemed superior to African Americans to the extent that white girls from town could come and assault Maya’s grandmother. Maya saw African Americans stripped of their human image and qualities such as education and life. It is hurtful to see how white make fun of dead black men. White men always grinned as they stood looking at the dead bodies of black men.

No need to say that the racist episodes are connected with painful childhood experience Maya had. Coping with painful memories and self-examination allows children to develop intellectually and realize themselves, as Havighurst’s theory states (Hurrelmann & Quenzel, 2018). Maya is emotionally disturbed as she sees white men grin over the dead bodies of the black community in the lake. At the novel’s beginning, Maya is confused in her search to find her identity. She is also caged by the pain of being abandoned by her parents. Maya is transformed at the novel’s end as she is now a humble, independent, and wise African American free from her insecurities and emotional cage. This transformation emphasizes the strong character Maya has, and her ability to cope with stress she faced as the child. In other words, Maya’s ability to cope with trauma make her evolve from the perspective of Havighurst’s theory and develop her adult personality.

Piaget’s Theory of Development

Moral develop of children is gradual because they acquire ethical norms of behavior from adult people and from experience. Piaget’s theory of moral evolution in children achieves the standards for discerning between right and wrong governed by laws, culture, and social norms (Sanghvi, 2020). The heteronomous morality state is the first stage of the preconvention level of Piaget’s development theory’s three and six steps (Rathus, Rogerson, & Berk, 2021). It confines moral judgments to the resultant consequences of individuals’ behaviors. Stage one is essential because it orients behaviors towards punishment and obedience. In this case, fear of punishment is instilled in children due to their disobedience. Therefore, it implies that children will portray good behaviors and remain obedient to evade punishment (Rathus, Rogerson, & Berk, 2021). Therefore, punishment for disobedience of moral laws and unethical behavior of children allows them to form their views on evil and good.

The first experience in Arkansas with the grandmother after their parents’ divorce highlights what Piaget’s theory of development describes as heteronomous morality. Maya is brought up by her grandmother’s religious views that supposes certain views on morality. Maya was “learning the mid-Victorian values with very little money to indulge them” (Angelou, 2015, p. 101). As a result, she could not retreat to the white girls who had come to abuse her grandmother because she had discernment between wrong and good from her grandmother’s Christian values. Maya was taught to forget those who were evil to her because it was the Christian perspective on morality, and the severe ethical restriction did not allow Maya to become brutal as the adolescent to those who were unjust.

There is a remarkable improvement in Maya at the end of the book than at the beginning. Maya was an emotionally caged girl during her early ages, but she transformed into the independent and wise woman. She is free from her insecurities and emotional cage through positive inspiration from Momma and Vivian as her role models. Maya now sheds light on black people’s lives and the struggle they undergo to survive. She is an influence on the entire community on prevailing racial injustices at the end of the novel. Such problematic issues as race, emotional development, and the difficulty of self-examination and exhuming painful memories made Maya stronger, and allowed her to develop her adult personality.


I know why the Caged Bird Sing helps the author to highlight the development stages every human experiences. Maya experience the stages from Erikson’s, Piaget’s, and Havighurst’s development theories. Maya’s admiration of her role models, such as Momma and Vivian, who are described as loving and caring, corresponds to Erikson’s theory. It allows her to create a bond with other people, to develop trust, and to overcome mistrust. Maya passes through stages according to Havighurst’s development theory, and develops positive qualities to become the mature person even though she experiences racism, segregation, lack of parental care, and enduring discrimination as a teenager. Her ugly and beautiful childhood shapes the dream woman she becomes in the black community. Maya develops high moral standards in her childhood, which is the result of her Christian upbringing according to Piaget’s developmental theory. Therefore, Maya successfully passed through stages of development as a child into a lady.


Angelou, M. (2015). I know why the caged bird sings. Random House Publishing Group.

Hurrelmann, K., & Quenzel, G. (2018). Developmental tasks in adolescence. Routledge.

Rathus, S. A., Rogerson, R., & Berk, L. E. (2021). History, theories, and methods. In HDEV. Essay, Nelson Education Ltd.

Samsonovich, A. (2021). Theory and diversity: A descriptive study of Erikson’s psychosocial development stages. Electronic Theses, Projects, and Dissertations,1230.

Sanghvi, P. (2020). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: A review. Indian Journal of Mental Health, 7(2), 90-96.