I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Published in 1969
Genre: Nonfiction, autobiography, African-American literature
“I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.”
Most people wouldn’t choose to begin their autobiography by telling the story of a time they wet themselves in embarrassment, but Maya Angelou was not like most people. The anecdote that begins I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings sets the tone for the first in a series of autobiographies about her life. Deeply poetic and honest without restraint, Angelou writes with passion and conviction while letting us into the delicate truths of her childhood.
The book starts with Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. Sent there with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother, the foundations of the woman Angelou would become are laid down. In these early chapters, we learn the intimate aspects of her upbringing in the care of a deeply religious and resourceful woman, as well as the origin of her name. Originally born Marguerite, the name Maya came about from her brother Bailey calling her “Mya sister”, then simply “My”, then the name she would be known by for most of her life.
The routine of southern life is disrupted by a visit from her father, whose charm and good looks Maya laments since she doesn’t think they were passed on to her. He takes her and Bailey to St. Louis to live with their mother; the two children go through grammar school and begin living with Grandmother Baxter, who is another strong female role model that helps the transition into their mother’s care.
Unfortunately, happiness does not always last and Maya was sexually assaulted and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, when she was 8. Though Mr. Freeman threatened her into silence, he was eventually taken to court, acquitted, and murdered shortly after the trial. Maya’s guilt and lack of comprehension after this event led her to be considered sensitive by those around her when she returned to Stamps.
However, the return proved to be fortuitous because it allowed Maya to meet Mrs. Flowers, who would become the first patron outside of her family that wanted her to learn and rise above her current situation. Embodying grace and beauty, Mrs. Flowers would steer Maya farther toward the path of her blossoming love toward learning and reading.
The book continues into Angelou’s teenage years and describes her growth into puberty. Concerns with body image compared to other girls her age, blooming sexuality, and the possibilities of passion are all addressed in these final chapters. When she was 17, she seduced a boy (for lack of a better term) and became pregnant. Her family accepts this and she welcomes the gift of life she has been given with the apprehension present in all new mothers; ending with a beginning such as this fits with Angelou’s poetic view of the world.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gives insight into the state of mind of African-Americans in the South during the 1930s. Angelou writes about how, when she was growing up, she would think of white people as “whitefolks,” making them almost a completely separate entity. There is another story where she is listening to a sermon on charity and is told that white people are sinners who will one day get what they deserve. The congregation is left wondering how long they must wait for that to take place.
In another part of the book, Angelou writes about a boxing match on the radio that is being listened to by the patrons of her grandmother’s shop. The match is between a white man and a black man and much more is at stake depending on who wins; if Joe Louis, the black boxer, loses, then so too does the rest of the race. This sense of racial identity carried on his shoulders through something as simple as two men hitting each other until one can’t anymore carries the undertones of communal suffering. When Louis wins, so do the rest of the African-Americans.
Angelou writes with all the skill and poetic talent she has. She commands an amazing array of literary devices and her voice shines through the prose. The book skips around in time and there are many more anecdotes than those referenced here in my review.
The best books don’t tell us what we already know (despite Winston Smith’s assertion in 1984), or reaffirm what we believe to be true; the best books challenge our expectations, our biases, and our assumptions. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one such book and I can honestly say that I am a changed man after reading it. Not only is it enjoyable from the point of view of written language, but it isn’t afraid to tell the embarrassing stories, the funny stories, or the sad ones.
There is no entry in the “Not recommended for” section in this review because everyone should read this book at some point in their lives.
Verdict: 5 elegant expressions out of 5
Recommended for: Those looking to expand their perspectives, fans of well-written prose, people who enjoy reading nonfiction, everyone, and you!
Not recommended for: