“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
review by Meredith McKinnie
“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.”
Angelou’s groundbreaking memoir challenges the autobiographical genre. Published in 1969, Angelou recounts her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. Left by her mother and father, Marguerite (Maya) and her beloved brother Bailey live with their grandmother (Momma) and Uncle Willie. Though surrounded by an impoverished black community, Momma is the sole black owner of a general store, providing the family some comforts that elevate them in their neighbor’s eyes. Momma’s devout faith and emphasis on a Christian upbringing for the children is shrouded in her immense love and no-nonsense approach to parenting. While visiting their mother in St. Louis, 8-year-old Marguerite is brutally raped by her mother’s boyfriend, an experience that overshadows the rest of her life. Exploring themes of identity, sexual violence, racism, and education, Angelou’s memoir chronicles her upbringing until the age of 16. Six more volumes of the autobiography continue the story.
Elegantly composed and beautifully narrated, Angelou blends blistering social commentary with coming-of-age woes, cloaked in the heartbreak of being forced into womanhood against one’s will. The love story between Marguerite and her brother Bailey resonates throughout the narrative, providing the girl a safe space, a constant place to return. Divided between their time in pre-Civil Rights southern town and California, Marguerite learns the immediacy of place and the ability of books to transport oneself somewhere else. Anytime she feels lost in the world, she can find grounding in someone else’s story. One of her beloved escapes is Jane Eyre, a reminder that a black girl in the south struggled to see someone who looked and lived like her recognized in print.
Maya Angelou is also known for her poetry and activism. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National book Award in 1970 and went on to be a bestseller for many years. The poet’s lyricism is evident on each page of the memoir, ironically as if Angelou herself is singing to the reader. The metaphor of a caged bird resonates throughout, as Angelou longs to find herself and her place in a world that refuses to allow a young black woman to live truly free. Through unimaginable hardship, a quiet girl finds her voice on the page.
“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between…there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”