Piqued by a dare, Angelou approached her first book as an exercise in autobiography as art, a literary achievement which, according to Random House editor Robert Loomis, is virtually impossible. Determined to transcend facts with truth, she concentrates on the Maya character's rationale and thought processes that presaged her adult character, both as woman and survivor. Disclosing her version of the black female's victimization by prejudice and powerlessness, as though creating a fictional character, she champions Maya's ability to compensate for displacement, disparagement, lack of stability, and savagely truncated self-worth. Through a tournament list of crises, young Maya moves from near-orphanhood to a rebirth of self, complete with a generous perception of worth and dignity. The circuitous pilgrimage in search of unconditional belonging ends with motherhood, ironically the failed source which precipitated Maya's soulful odyssey.
Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and labeled by reviewer Wanda Coleman as Angelou's "magnum opus," I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a modern classic among young adult and adult readers, has earned varied kudos. One of the most outspoken comes from the late James Baldwin, Angelou's friend and mentor: "This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of an era in the minds and hearts and lives of all black men and women. . . . Her portrait is a Biblical study of life in the midst of death." Others credit Angelou with inaugurating a new era in black consciousness and serving as a touchstone for later black female success stories, particularly the writings of Rosa Guy and Alice Walker.
Critics find much meat on the bones of Angelou's first attempt at nonfiction. Journalist Greg Hitt remarks on the recurrent themes of growth and self-evaluation, which she pursues with honesty and candor. Sidonie Anne Smith of Southern Humanities Review notes that Angelou is able to "recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making." This unabashed joy in metaphor splashed with dialect and soaked in reflection comprises the book's major strength. Angelou's energetic delvings into the black community of the Depression-era South reject dolor and self-pity in favor of a full range of emotions — from wonderment at an older brother's bold, funny shenanigans to his vulnerability and dismay at a bloated corpse pulled from a pond and deposited in a jail cell — from tentative exploration of boy-girl relations to emotional release in the singing of the black national anthem.
In contrast, some appraisers find reason to question Angelou's notoriety as an autobiographer. In her thorough discussion of Angelou's literary style, Selwyn R. Cudjoe, in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, challenges the authenticity of the author's point of view, which Cudjoe suspects of distorting childhood perceptions with adult consciousness. In self-criticism, Angelou admitted to interviewer Carol E. Neubauer that maintaining a voice consistent with the time represented in the autobiography was difficult, but that she was encouraged enough by her early success to consider recreating some childhood incidents which, at the first writing, seemed too elusive for her skills. An unabashed fan, British reviewer Paul Bailey, sweeps away the doubts of both critic and author with frank admiration for Angelou's skillful verisimilitude: "If you want to know what it was like to live at the bottom of the heap before, during and after the American Depression, this exceptional book will tell you."
Angelou has said that she wanted to film I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in order to "get some things on television that reflect more of the marrow of the black American life than the shallow fingernail clippings we now have." The two-hour television version, filmed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, stars Esther Rolle as Momma Henderson, Diahann Carroll and Roger Mosley as Vivian and Bailey Johnson, Ruby Dee as Grandmother Baxter, Sonny Gaines as Uncle Willie, Paul Benjamin as Mr. Freeman, John M. Driver II as Bailey junior, and Constance Good as Maya. The production, touted in the national press as a major effort, appeared on CBS-TV as a Saturday Night Movie on April 28, 1979. According to a sprinkling of critics, the screen version, co-authored by Maya Angelou and Leonora Thuna and directed by Fielder Cook, lacked the intense yearning and lyrical introspection of the book. Stultified by television's all-too-predictable rhythms, the movie lacked the fire and spirit, warmth and sensibility that permeated her memoir and suffered from a trite ending.
The majority of critical voices, however, used words like seamless, stirring, humane, unflinchingly truthful, and intimate. In one notable review, New Yorker reviewer Michael J. Arlen lauded the production for its honesty, which details "the pain of the character and the pathos of the situation." Dick Sheppard, writing for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, summed up the overall effect of seeing young Maya challenge overwhelming odds as a "crescendo of power," moving viewers to a tearful consideration of the plight of a young, innocent black girl coping nobly with fearful, chaotic events.