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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Synopsis: (Warning:  Spoilers!)   Maya Angelou recounts the story of her life from her earliest years until her mid-teens in this autobiography. Although this book is autobiographical, it reads more like a work of fiction; it seems more like a carefully-crafted story than a person’s recollection of her life.  Much of Angelou’s childhood was spent in the pre-World War II, racially segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where she and her brother Bailey were raised by their paternal grandmother, Momma and their handicapped uncle, Willie.  Their life in Arkansas was interrupted by a brief exodus to St. Louis, where they lived with their mother, and eventually, by a move to California where they were once again reunited with their mother.  Maya and Bailey experience things no child should ever experience (hence the controversial nature of the book), and while the book is not hopeful (at least in my opinon–despite its title), Angelou manages to write the story in such a way that at least some of the characters in it have a sense of accomplishment and direction in their lives, despite their terrible suffering.

My Thoughts: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of those books I’ve avoided for quite a while.  I am not one to seek out controversy; in fact, I usually head in the opposite direction when I see it coming.  However, I knew from reading some of Maya Angelou’s poetry that it would in all likelihood be a beautifully written story, in spite of its frequent appearance on banned books lists.  Although after finishing the book I could not in good conscience recommend this book to just anyone (and I certainly could not recommend it to anyone at all without a huge disclaimer), I was not disappointed with the the book.  Angelou is a very gifted writer who writes about her life, a life fraught with hardship and suffering, with finesse.  What follows are some rather disjointed, unorganized thoughts about the book based on the questions by Melissa at 5 Minutes for Books.

I am a Southerner; I was born, raised, and still live in the middle of the South.  While I have never experienced anything that even remotely resembles the segregated South of this book, I do not have to look very far back (in fact, just to my parents) to find someone who can tell me at least a little bit about what life before the Civil Rights movement was like.  However, many scenes in this book were shocking to me when I first read them, and in fact, they are indelibly etched in my mind.  For example, the picture of her crippled Uncle Willie climbing into a potato and onion bin in Momma’s store to hide from a posse looking for a black man to punish for a supposed crime:

We were told to take the potatoes and onions out of their bins and knock out the dividing walls that kept them apart.  Then with a tedious and fearful slowness Uncle Willie game me his rubber-tipped cane and bent down to get into the now-enlarged empty bin.  It took him forever before he lay down flat, and then we covered him with potatoes and onions, layer upon layer, like a casserole.  Grandmother knelt praying in the darkened Store.  (18 )

My heart was heavy as I read of Maya’s eighth grade graduation, which was held at the same time as the high school graduation, and at which the commencement speaker was a white man, Mr. Donleavy, who managed to completely deflate what had been a very optimistic and happy occasion:

Graduation, the hush-hush magic time of frills and gifts and congratulations and diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called.  The accomplishment was nothing.  The meticulous maps, drawn in three colors of ink, learning and spelling decasyllabic words, memorizing the whole of The Rape of Lucrece–it was for nothing.  Donleavy had exposed us.

We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.  (175)

Angelou articulates what it must have felt like to have one’s dreams crushed into the dust for no other reason than the color of one’s skin.

The most interesting part of the story, to me, is the contrast between life in the South with Momma and life in the North and later, in California, with Mother.  In my opinion, the only wholly positive main character in the story is Momma.  Of course, the fact that Maya does not understand her actually makes the point more obvious that she is living by virtue of a higher Good that Maya cannot comprehend.  The showdown between Momma and the “powhitetrash” schoolgirls is a beautiful example:

I burst.  A firecracker July-the-Fourth burst.  How could Momma call them Miz?  The mean nasty things.  Why couldn’t she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them breasting the hill?  What did she prove?  And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz?

She stood another whole song through and then opened the screen door to look down on me crying in rage.  She looked until I looked up.  Her face was a brown moon that shone on me.  She was beautiful.  Something had happened out there, which I couldn’t completely understand, but I could see that she was happy.  Then she bent down and touched me as mothers of the church “lay hands on the sick and afflicted” and I quieted.

“Go wash your face, Sister.”  And she went behind the candy counter and hummed, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”

I threw the well water on my face and used the weekday handkerchief to blow my nose.  Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won.  (32)

I do not like Maya’s Mother very much.  I have a hard time wrapping my head around parents who abandon their children anyway, and while I’m sure I don’t understand all of the social and political ins-and-outs of the situation, it seems to me that sending Maya and Bailey to live with Momma in Arkansas was just an easy way out for her.  Of course, I think the children were better off in Arkansas with Momma, despite the segregation, but still.  I do not think anything good ever happened to Maya (and in fact, some really bad things happened to her) when she lived with her mother.

The overwhelming feeling I got at the end of this book is that it is unfinished.  While it ends on a positive note with the birth of Maya’s son (despite the fact that she is an unmarried teen living with her rather unpredictable and morally negligent mother, Maya feels better about her life at this point than she has for essentially the whole book), I cannot say that I think that “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is a fitting title for this book.  Maya doesn’t do a whole lot of “singing” in this book, at least not intentionally (but then again, do birds sing intentionally?) .  Perhaps if I ever get up the nerve to read the rest of her autobiographies, I will figure out if this was just a premature titling of her story.

Overall, I am glad I read this book, but I could not recommend it without the caveat that it contains some very explicit and disturbing descriptions.  My positive opinion is largely informed by the fact that I think she is an amazingly talented writer.  Thus, I will end this review with a few of my favorite quotations which showcase Angelou’s craftsmanship with the English language:

During the picking season my grandmother would get out of bed at four o’clock (she never used an alarm clock) and creak down to her knees and chant in a sleep-filled voice, “Our Father, thank you for letting me see this New Day. Thank you that you didn’t allow the bed I lay on last night to be my cooling board, nor my blanket my winding sheet.  Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow and help me put a bridle on my tongue.  Bless this house, and everybody in it.  Thank you, in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.”  (8 )

For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible.  (90)

Momma could not take the smallest achievement for granted.  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 commensurate speed. ( 117)

Check out this month’s Classics Bookclub at 5 Minutes for Books to find other discussions of this book.

**All quotations are cited from the 1969 Random House edition of the book.

6 Responses

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned the graduation scene, because I sort of wanted to include it in my review, but I wasn’t really going into detail in my review about specific incidents. However, I thought that scene was awful. Physical reactions are one thing — cruel words and acting out as trained (as the poor white trash girls did) is another. Both are bad, but the speaker’s actions show such a wrong way of thinking as far as the similarities and differences of the races that it was stunning, and I could just feel the loss of hope.

    By the way, check out wikipedia. I’m not sure when the hope comes in, because the second volume of her life/autobiography seems horribly bleak!

    Also, Melissa gave some info about the title on the podcast.

  2. I so enjoy reading thoughts of those more scholarly than me. ( I mean that respectfully). I must have been clenching my jaw when reading the graduation part, because my husband asked me what was wrong!

  3. I’m glad you included all the quotes so your blog readers could get a taste of the beauty in the writing. Also glad you mentioned the graduation scene. That was so moving I had to read it twice and cried both times. Great review.

  4. Yes, I also appreciated the quotes! They were helpful and informative — although I still think I will pass on this book as a whole.

    Appreciated your review!

  5. […] Shy)90. Sarah M., LH (The Spiderwick Chronicles)91. Books & Other Thoughts (Waiter Rant)92. Amy @ Hope Is the Word (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)93. Florinda – The 3 R’s (Change of Heart)94. bekahcubed (A Single Thread)95. bekahcubed […]

  6. […] 1. Jennifer, Snapshot2. Amy @ Hope Is the Word […]

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