Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
Bantam, 1971

It’s ironic that what most stands out in the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography is her voice; when she was a girl, she stopped speaking for a time, but, in looking back on the experiences of her younger years, her voice is unforgettable.

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.”

This quotation is from the third page: immediately the reader is drawn into the storyteller’s web with its memorable confluence of beauty and pain.

Maya Angelou contributes directly to the life-affirming and life-saving legacy that she acknowledges in her own prose. Even readers who are unaware of her other published works, her collections of poetry, will recognize her to be a poet, one of those to whom others might raise a monument, as she describes:

“If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers).”

Her prose is, unmistakeably, poetic.

This is evident when she is writing about beautiful things: “The gay picnic dresses dashed, stopped and darted like beautiful dragonflies over a dark pool.”

It is also true when she is writing about painful things: “At home, I was given a warm salt solution, and when I washed out my mouth I showed Bailey the empty holes, where the clotted blood sat like filling in a pie crust.”

And beyond a poetic style, her language use, even in relatively simple sentences,  is creative and evocative. For instance, she uses ‘humpty-dumptied’ as a verb, and even when the word usage is familiar and recognizable, her dialogue is remarkably sharp and realistic.

When she describes her brother Bailey’s way of speaking, she mentions that he was “forever dropping slangy terms into his sentences like dumplings in a pot”. Maya Angelou drops bursts of beauty into her sentences but that doesn’t distract from the content.

This quality never diminishes the reader’s ability to readily comprehend the events of the storyteller’s life; in fact, not only are the events clear and distinct, but the way that they unfold is, at times, startlingly gripping.

That same toothache scene above, that which brought pools of blood into the pie crust, was a scene in which I caught myself reading jaw-dropped and having gradually moved so that I was crouched over the book, so anxious was I to learn the outcome: would this young girl get the treatment that she needed so badly, or would a white man’s ignorance leave her to suffer multiple injuries.

“Now the humiliation of hearing Momma describe herself as if she had no last name to the young white girl was equal to the physical pain. It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness.”

It was a very ordinary and extraordinary scene, which demonstrates the author’s craft and the simple adage that a tale well told is irresistible.

The combination of these admirable qualities in Maya Angelou’s writing ensures that you don’t need to have a particular interest in American race relations to appreciate this story, but, if you do have an interest in this subject, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is unmissable.

Maya Angelou’s depiction of her girlhood in Stamps (and elsewhere) most dramatically reveals the tensions and struggles between blacks and whites. She writes: “I remember never believing that whites were really real.” And, twenty pages later, she muses: “Of course I knew God was white too, but no one could have made me believe he was prejudiced.”

Sometimes a particular event is rooted in the author’s experience of Blackness, as in the broadcast of the Joe Louis fight which she describes as follows:

“My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.”

But the author’s consideration of race issues engages another layer of complexity as she considers, for example, the Japanese internment camps in the United States in during WWII. “Who could expect this man to share his new and dizzying importance with concern for a race that he had never known to exist?”

The emotional intensity surrounding tensions (rooted in race, class, and sex and intersections between these memberships) afford the opportunity for thoughtful commentary. And, frequently, these aspects of the work are still relevant several decades after this volume was originally published, as with this passage:

“The Depression must have hit the white section of Stamps with cyclonic impact, but it seeped into the Black area slowly, like a thief with misgivings.”

There are many reflections that provide much food for thought and discussion on an even more general basis. For instance: “Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives” and “At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” The overarching sense of this volume the reader is left with is a universal story of a girl finding and valuing her voice. This is a fundamentally human experience.

Maya Angelou writes: “We were introduced to Hungarian goulash and Irish stew. Through food we learned that there were other people in the world.” Through books I learned that there were other people in the world.

Have you read this volume? Or any of Maya Angelou’s other works, prose or otherwise?
I originally chose this volume with The Heroine’s Bookshelf Challenge in mind (it’s recommended as a literary sister read), but now I’m considering reading on in the series: have you?