Maya Angelou: Freeing the Caged Bird

She looks up and recites the first of several “po-hems,” as she calls them:

But the caged bird stands on the grave of dreams, his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.”

Singing from her perch on the stage at the University of Southern Florida’s Sun Dome, Maya Angelou recited Paul Dunbar’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She told the crowded stadium stories of when she was a 16-year-old girl in the 1940s, 6-feet tall and pregnant, unmarried and uncertain of whether she would ever succeed in life. She remembers standing in front of the United Nations Building at age 16, watching as women like Eleanor Roosevelt walked through the building’s front doors. Maya was on the outside looking in, a caged bird who eventually opened her throat and began to sing through poetry.

She knew she had a gift with words, but she had lived in silence. What she needed, she said, was “to return to my voice.” Return to her voice so, like the caged bird, she could be free. Maya encouraged others in the audience to experience that freedom, through poetry, through laughter, through romance. Everyone needs a significant other in their life, she said, who will tell you that “Not only are you fine. You’re just right.” Everyone, she said, should “go to the library” because libraries are “ill-used,” and everyone should “memorize poems in case their computer flip flops.” It’s worth knowing some Shakespeare, too. Shakespeare, Maya said, has always been the “rainbow” in her clouds.

Didactic messages to be sure, but not preachy. As I watched her sit on stage, all 80 years of her, I was convinced of her greatness. Weak in stature, she’s powerful in spirit. Her po-hems have power, too. As she recited them, I didn’t just hear them; I felt them. They made me want to jump down a few bleachers and give Maya a hug, made me want to put her in my pocket and then take her out when I need a little poetry or pick-me-up in life.

I wouldn’t doubt that Maya “freed” some caged birds tonight, showing them that escape from entrapment is possible.

Who inspires you?

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at

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