This is one of those books I’ve always thought I should read, but it was only when it appeared on my local Book Club list, that I finally got around to it. It’s not a new release – in fact, it’s almost fifty years since it was published, so perhaps it could be described now as something of a classic.
Entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally irritating: the first of Maya Angelou’s seven volumes of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, describes the horrific racism and trauma of her early life.
It’s the start of a coming of age series that lays out – quite matter-of-factly – the pressures facing a black child growing up amidst racism and hatred.
Angelou, who had a long and varied career, but is probably best known as a writer and civil rights worker, starts the book as a three-year old when she and her older brother are abandoned by their parents and sent to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Momma.
The story is briskly told and and a compelling read. There’s plenty of detail about the child struggling to make sense of the world; struggling to maintain dignity – a white dentist refuses to help Maya when she suffers severe toothache (even though the man is indebted to Momma); and struggling to develop a sense of self when the world around her casually dismisses the life chances of young, black girls – a white speaker at her school graduation ceremony disparages the black audience and what he sees as their limited job opportunities.
The same this-was-how-it-was approach is used to mark a shocking turning point in the book: when Maya’s father appears and takes his two children to live with their mother in Missouri.
Eight-year-old Maya is sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and, even then, despite being the victim, she argues and rationalizes on the basis of how a (white) society has treated her, that this was somehow her fault; she is the guilty one. And she withdraws, mutely.
It’s only through the intervention of an influential (black) woman who introduces her to the importance of books and communication that Maya emerges to find her voice again.
The volume loses some of its briskness of pace in the final chapters as Angelou deals with her development as a woman, having sex, and having a baby. Here the writing seems rushed and loses its verve.
Perhaps Angelou regains the style in the remaining six volumes:
Gather Together in My Name (published 1974)
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry like Christmas (1976)
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
All God’s Children need Travelling Shoes (1986)
A Sing Flung up to Heaven (2002)
Mom & Me & Mom (2014)
Which I perhaps should now also read?
Meanwhile, there have been various suggestions as to where the title of the book originates. One influence could have been Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.