Here we are with yet another classic I was somehow never forced to read, but I do remember my brother bringing it home from school once and being so incredibly curious about the title. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is only part one of her seven-part autobiography. In honor of her birthday earlier this week, I thought I would cover this classic from an amazing woman whose career spanned more than 50 years.
Genre, Themes, History: As the first in an autobiographical series, this book is nonfiction and starts with the early life of Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928. The book begins with Angelou's early life in Stamps, Arkansas; covers her brief but traumatic time living with her mother in St. Louis; back to Stamps with her grandmother; and then ultimately ends after she moves to Oakland, California to once again live with her mother. At the close of the book, Angelou is 17 years old and has just finished high school. It may seem like Angelou and her brother Bailey were moved around a lot, but there are few moments when her living situation felt tenuous, especially when she was living with her grandmother, whom she referred to as "Momma." Angelou recalls growing up poor and black in the segregated south, working in her momma's store, which prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II. Angelou also talks about the man that sexually abused her, and whose subsequent murder was the reason she stopped speaking for nearly five years. It would not be until an encounter with a friend of the family that she would be encouraged to talk to other people besides her brother Bailey. In this coming-of-age story, Angelou touches on identity and racism as she talks about the earliest years of her life.
My Verdict: Angelou's story is told in such a way that it is honest without being abrasive; poetic without glossing over the hard stuff; and incredible without becoming out of reach or hard to believe. This woman had been through a lot, and this book only deals with the first 17 years. Despite the hardships and intense racism that Angelou had to deal with, the book is fairly easy to read and is never boring, but almost always inspriational. With her brother Bailey almost like a sidekick, Angelou's story includes adventures as well as misadventures, and observations about growing up that are only obvious in hindsight. They are the kind of observations nearly everyone can relate to, but I do not think anyone could tell these stories the way Angelou does.
Favorite Moment: When Angelou slaps one of her dad's girlfriends when she calls her mother a whore.
Favorite Quote: "Didn't Moses lead the children of Israel out of the bloody hands of the Pharaoh and into the Promised Land? Didn't the Lord protect the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace and didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? We only had to wait on the Lord."
"The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."
Recommended Reading: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, as well as The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward.