It’s an amazing and one of a lifetime book that will you make you both laugh and cry, a book that has such a powerful story, that it remains with you long after the last page has turned. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings meets this criteria.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a beautifully written autobiography. Angelou has a distinct style of writing where she lyrically describes her life from the age of 3 until her later teens. As a three year old child, Angelou was sent across the country via train with only her four year old brother Bailey. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce and her father’s mother, Momma or Mrs. Annie Henderson, took in both children and raised them.
Life in Stamps, Arkansas is both the best and worst of times. The kids always have plenty of food to eat with Momma as a store and property owner in town during the Great Depression. Momma also sets rules and expects them to be obeyed and is full of love. Young Maya though notices that although Momma is a powerful woman in the black community, whites including “Po’ White Trash” treat Momma with no respect and there is nothing Momma can do about it.
When Maya is eight, her father comes back for her and Bailey. She believes they are going to California to live, but in reality, he is taking them north to St. Louis to live with their mother Vivian. Maya is brutally raped by her mother’s boyfriend during this period of time. He is captured, tried, and let off easy. He is found dead one day later, most likely killed by her mother’s family. Maya believes that her words on the stand caused a man’s death, so she stops speaking for years.
Her Mother and her family don’t know what to do with Maya so they send her and young Bailey back to Stamps, Arkansas. There with the help of Momma and a special teacher, Maya is able to move on. In her teenage years, after Bailey sees firsthand the brutality of being a black man in the Deep South, Momma takes the two children to their parents in California. As a teenager in California, Maya also has her ups and downs including becoming the first African American Female trolley conductor in San Francisco, and being homeless for a while. The book ends with Maya becoming an unwed teenage mother and you have to wonder, what will happen next. Luckily, Angelou continued her autobiography in a series of books after this to continue the entire story.
I loved this book when I first read it as an eighteen year old and I loved it on reading it again as a now almost thirty-eight year old. I love how unique Angelou’s writing style is. The fact that she can make me laugh on one page only to have me cry on another is due to her superb writing skills. I like how she honestly took a look back at her life and wrote an unflinching narrative that including the dark times of her life. You can’t read this book without being horrified by her rape as an eight year old girl. It brings me to tears just typing this. The aftermath where no one in her family every mentioned it again and basically left Angelou to deal with this on her own is also a lesson on how not to deal with a victim.
I was also horrified on how Angelou’s parents treated her and Bailey. I can’t imagine just dropping my kids off with their Grandma and not having any contact with them for years. The uncertainty of their life with living with Momma or their parents caused a lot of angst and problems. Truthfully though, I felt like life with Momma provided the stability that they needed and were lacking from their parents so it was probably a good thing that they were sent there.
I also liked the discussion of race relations in America, which sadly are as pertinent today as they were when this book was written in the 1960’s. One of the most striking sections to me was when Momma tried to take Maya to the dentist. There was only a white one in town, but during the depression he had borrowed money from Momma to keep his business going. Although he wasn’t too good to take Momma’s money, he tells her on no uncertain terms, that he refused to do any dental work on an African American, even a child in pain. It is hard for me to grasp how people could treat each other this way. We are all people no matter the color of our skin.
I’ve read that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a frequently banned book in schools. While I don’t think this book would be appropriate for middle school children, I think it would definitely be a good book for a high schooler to read. It is graphic and brutally honest, but that also makes it a good book to discuss race, sexual abuse, and a variety of topics with your student or child. I am not a fan of banning books.
Overall, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of my favorite books, with a unique storyteller, Maya Angelou, giving an unflinching and beautiful narrative of life in the Deep South and with a fractured family. I highly recommend it.
Book Source: My own library. I bought this book somewhere twenty years ago.