Book Review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Her quotes kept me going at some point in my life.
I came to realize that if I am enjoying a book, I have this thing where I get sucked into the lives of the characters in the book. I feel like I am a part of the story, and so I become so empathetic with them and their experiences. Like I feel real happy when they’re happy and real sad when they’re sad.
I have always loved Maya Angelou. Her quotes kept me going at some point in my life. Perhaps when I started adulting and realizing that life is not as black and white as I expected it to be. I could very easily have used one or two of her well-formed words to communicate or express my frustrations. You know when you have so much to say but you don’t have the right words to use and so a single quote from her summarizes everything you needed to say and delivers it with a punch.
I am late to Maya Angelou’s Party when it comes to her books, because I genuinely thought that they were poetry books. I know, I know, my ignorance is showing, but it’s good to be honest with yourself. Also, it’s not that I have anything against poetry books, it’s just that given a choice, I’d prefer an ordinary stories written in continuous prose. I actually love poetry, but I prefer to consume it in single doses. I kept on coming across her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in my friends kindle app. And so when one day I went in search of something interesting to read since I’d had a series of “books-I-am-unable-to-finish-reading,” I thought maybe I should check it out and see what it’s about anyway and well, shock on me. It’s her autobiography.
She chronicles the events in her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s and how they affected her growing up and that’s how she identifies herself as a caged bird. She was presented with situations where she saw and experienced racism, sexism and systemic segregation, that alongside her own insecurities. Her actual name, Marguerite Annie Johnson, was raised alongside her brother Bailey Johnson whom throughout book she’s careful to display their closeness.
They were both raised by their grandmother (dad’s mom), whom they referred to as Momma in the Stamps. I think that was their version of the countryside. Their Momma owned a store where they both helped in their free time and that’s where they met and interacted with people from different walks of life – from the rich to poorest of poor; people of different races, some who felt more superior than others and it’s in that environment they observed a lot of Southern racism.
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.
Maya shares how at a tender age of eight, she goes through a tragic experience after her father comes to the Stamps and takes them to live with their mother, Vivian Baxter in St. Louis, Missouri. There she encounters her mother’s boyfriend who one day decides to sexually molest her and then later on, rapes her. She tries to keep it undercover, because she feared for her brother life whom she loves so much and whose life Mr. Freeman has threatened to end if she spoke a word to anyone. And when the family finds out about the ordeal, they take action and he’s found violently murdered in the streets.
She feels responsible for his death, while at the same time she also endures the shame of having been sexually abused. She feels guilty about it and believes that she could have been the one who triggered it. It takes away her innocence and to deal with it, she goes silent and refuses to speak. Until they move back to the Stamps and when Momma realizes that she can’t get through to her. She introduces her to a lady, Mrs. Flower, who then introduces her to the word of literature and through her voice when she reads out to her, she feels like it’s just what she needs. Mrs. Flower encourages her to also do the same and gives her books and assignments. When she goes home, she starts reading out loud and for the first time she feels like she’s doing something right. It gives her a sense of identity and it’s from there that she develops a great love for poetry. She sees it as a channel to express herself.
This is where the story picks up for me, because through her experience, I get to understand the meaning of silence from so many perspectives and what it also means to regain a voice you had once lost. That for you to regain that voice, it needs to be for something meaningful to you. Something that will help free you from your insecurities and also, an outlet through which you can liberate others from those thing that have held them hostage. Because it’s at this stage she really started maturing and becoming aware of her individuality as well as her role in the community.
Then Momma begins to fear for their well-being because there was an increase in racism and systemic segregation that resulted to lynch mobs and she saves money to take the Maya and her brother to stay with their mother in San Francisco. Life didn’t get easier at this point because she later went through some horrific physical abuse by her father’s jealous girlfriend when she went to visit him and had to run away and stay in the junk yard with a bunch of street kids.
At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.
There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance.
Well, we can say she was quite smart for her age, because at only fifteen, she decides to defy the odds and apply for a street car conductor job, which at that time was a role only open for white people over the age of 18. She persevered and every day, she went and sat in the office and waited for the boss. Eventually she received their attention and was given the forms to fill in her details. Some of which she had to exaggerate like her age in order to be eligible. She eventually got it and became the first black streetcar conductor.
I’ve told you many times, “Can’t do is like Don’t Care.” Neither of them have a home.’ Translated, that meant there was nothing a person can’t do, and there should be nothing a human being didn’t care about. It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped for.
Then, at sixteen, she decides to experiment with her sexuality. This was after reading some literature on it, which made her start believing that she’s a lesbian. Only for her to go the full 9 yards with some cute lad and a few weeks in she finds out that she is pregnant. She hides it for 8 months, till she graduates from high school. She carries her pregnancy to term and when she delivers her baby boy she experiences some unfounded fears on motherhood, which her mother waters down by telling her,
“See you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.
From her story, it’s now easy to see why she identified herself as a cage bird who has now been liberated and she can sing. The meaning behind the title. Today, she speaks for the voiceless and gives them a voice through her words and through her actions.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
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.
I have seen recommendations for her other books and I’ll now make a conscious effort to read each one of them.
- I know why the caged bird sings ♥♥♥♥♥
- Gather together in my name
- Singing and swinging and getting merry like Christmas
- The heart of woman
- All God’s children need travelling shoes
- Mom and me and mom.
May her beautiful soul continue to rest in peace (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)