Maya Angelou – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings


I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, simply for the title, which is one of the most beautiful titles I’ve ever come across. So, I finally picked it up, and it’s probably one of the most beautiful autobiographies I’ve ever read. On reading the blurb, I thought it would be similar to the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple. While both books have a prominent thread of racism running through, the similarities end there.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the coming-of-age story of Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson, set in Stamps (Arkansas), St. Louis and San Francisco. Initially, she lives in Stamps with her brother, Bailey, her grandmother who she calls Momma, and her Uncle Willie. Momma, a no-nonsense unemotional religious Christian, owns the only store around, and is respected and well-liked by all – whites and blacks. While their parents are in California (doing goodness knows what), Momma brings the two children up, with proper morals and values. In fact, when Maya uses the phrase “by the way” passingly, she is admonished for using the Lord’s name in vain. And she cannot admit to liking Shakespeare, as he was white.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.

When Maya was eight, she went to live with her mother at St. Louis, and was subsequently raped by her mother’s then boyfriend. The boyfriend was later killed by her uncles, after the court sentenced him to just about a year in prison, but he was released immediately. This incident casted a shadow over the next few years of her youth, as she was convinced that she had blood on her hands.

However, this wasn’t the only thing that cast a shadow in her life: there was the white dentist who Momma had lent money to during the Depression, but when Maya needed her teeth looked at, the dentist refused saying he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. When she graduated eighth grade, and thought she had the whole world in her hands, a speech given by one of the “visitors” served a reminder that the students having ambitions higher than being maids, farmers, handymen and washerwomen were being farcical and presumptuous.

There was the world of the “whitefolk” and the “powhitefolk,” both of which were prejudiced against the blacks, despite some of the powhitefolk not having as much as some of the blacks did. There was the emotional upheaval when their father picked them up from Stamps to take them to St. Louis. And of course, the confusion when they returned to Stamps, back to the safe and righteous Momma.

Yet, this book isn’t written from the point of view of a “victim” – instead, it’ a young girl willing to achieve what she wants against all odds, and her profound insights into the world she lives in – the only world she knows. She talks openly about how her brother is her world, her admiration for one of Momma’s customers, the conflicting feelings on meeting her mother – a stranger – again. There’s no beating around the bush, no meanderings – just calling a spade a spade. It’s innocent and beautifully written. Each chapter can be read as a stand alone story, which, when put together forms a thought-provoking read.

People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.

I absolutely loved this book, and can’t recommend it highly enough. This book is the first of the six autobiographies she wrote, and I’ll try picking up the next in the volume, as the ending of the first book does make you wonder about how it all ties in, eventually.

29 Responses to “Maya Angelou – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”

  1. Oh wow. First, I did not know that this book is autobiography. I think I kinda mixed it with Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is fiction. Second, I didn’t know it’s the first volume out of 6! Your review made me want to read it right now! :)

    • I hope you do – well, maybe not “right now” but soon. I haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God yet, but, I do have a copy of it here. I didn’t realise it was completely non-fiction either, ’til I started reading it – shows you how little I know!

  2. 3 deucekindred

    Great Review! I’ve been wanting to read this book for AGES!!!

  3. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed this book – I need to dig my copy out now!

  4. I love the title of this book, as well, and have wanted to read it for the same reason. I didn’t know it was autobiographical, per se. Thanks for the review. I’m more determined than ever to check it out of my library.

  5. ‘Oh wow,’ is right. It must be so hard to write an autobiography of this kind without coming across as ‘misery memoir,’ but it is clear from your excellent review that Maya Angelou does not do so. I first heard of ‘Caged Bird’ in ‘Banned Books Week’ last year, and made a vague mental note at the time, but now I have an even better reason to read it. Thank you!

    Hope you are enjoying Alice Munro. I am really looking forward to seeing what you think; she is on my list too.

    • It’s not a misery memoir (I think) – you have to admire the strength she draws from the people around her, and her innocence is both, endearing and heart-wrenching.

      As for Munro, finished it, and loved it. Need to note down my thoughts soon!

  6. Definitely one to find. You make it sound brilliant, and thought provoking.

  7. It’s funny, I’ve wanted to read this book for quite awhile myself, but I haven’t yet. I love her writing her imagery, and that quote about the rust on the razor is so piercing.

    • That quote does sum up a lot of the book as well – and it’s so beautiful! It’s extraordinary how many people want to read this, but haven’t yet. Would strongly encourage you to change that:)

  8. I am so glad you enjoyed this book. It is incredibly moving!

  9. You have reminded me that I should read this book. My English teacher introduced me to Maya Angelou during my freshman year of high school, and her poetry has a special place in my heart, though it has been some years since I have read her work.

  10. Like Mee, I didn’t know this was the first of six, until I picked up the sixth. Hehe.. It’s interesting, because apparently, at the end of the sixth book, is when she started writing her first. I still haven’t read it yet, but if your review here is any indication, it looks like I might be in for a good read.

    • Oh, really? I didn’t know that. Makes it all the more interesting.

      Hope you get down to reading it – am quite curious to see how the other five books compare. Six volumes for one person’s life seems a little excessive, so…

  11. I didn’t realise this was a whole series. I wonder whether fans of her poetry like her prose work.

  12. I completely agree that the title is beautiful. I’m pleased to hear the book itself lives up to it!

  13. Intriguing! i love Angelou’s poetry and I’ve never read this – though I’ve heard a lot about it. It sounds like it really spoke to you anyway. Think I might give it a try :)

  14. Why I have not yet read this? I have had it on my shelves for what seems like forever. I haven’t read The Color Purple either (despite owning that for longer) and I also thought that they were similar in my head.

    • I really do recommend it. Color Purple as well – read it last year, and thought it was incredible.

      They are quite similar, but also, very different. In The Color Purple, I found myself sympathising with the protagonist a lot more, whereas in this, I felt myself liking (and to an extent, even admiring) young Maya – specially in the latter half of the book.

  1. 1 A Song Flung Up to Heaven – Maya Angelou « su[shu]

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