Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Title & Author: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Genre: Memoir
Synopsis (from Amazon):

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
 
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
 
Poetic and powerful, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.

First thing’s first: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most touching book I’ve read in a long time. I read a lot, and I like a lot of what I read, but this book truly moved me. I was transported to a time I’ve never known (the 1930s and 1940s) and places I’ve never lived (Stamps, Arkansas and St. Louis). I felt the isolation of being unwanted by your parents during your youth and believing that you only have a sibling to lean on. Marguerite [Maya’s real name was Marguerite Johnson, which she changed later in life] was confused and – rightfully – frustrated by the rules of segregation in the deep south and this book put me in the position to feel like everything was happening to me personally.


Based on the synopsis, I knew something not great happened to Marguerite early in her life. Unfortunately, I correctly guessed what that something would be. After the attack, she spends a good amount of time feeling as though she had done something wrong to provoke it. She doesn’t talk to anyone but her brother for a long time beyond the basic civilities. After isolating herself from others for a while, a kind woman named Mrs. Bertha Flowers invites Marguerite over to her home under the pretense of having Marguerite deliver groceries from bought at her grandmother’s store. Mrs. Flowers actually wants to mentor Marguerite, to give her “lessons in living”. She gives Marguerite books to read aloud, to help her discover her voice again. The lessons in living and the books help Marguerite find her center again after the attack.

When Marguerite is about 12, she and her brother, Bailey Jr.,  move back with their mother who is now living in San Francisco. Marguerite begins school at an institution for girls near their apartment but is soon transferred to George Washington High School, which she’s very happy about. She was only one of three black students in the school. Later, when she’s only fifteen, she was “hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars”.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings impressed for two reasons: first, Angelou was even more impressive and wise than I ever knew. She saw and lived through so much; instead of letting it weigh down her heart, she chose to accept what she had been given and focus on what she could control – her responses.

The other reason the book impressed me was the beauty of the language used by Angelou. I’m not an overly sentimental person but many of the phrases in the book were impossibly smart, beautiful and sad. For example:

“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.” (p. 6)

“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.” (p. 194)

“Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.” (p. 288)

I’ve never been a fan of poetry in general but her phrasing in this memoir is so beautiful that I feel I must read her poems as well.


Verdict: The story is a beautifully written tale of redemption, of overcoming obstacles that life has put in your path. Angelou is an inspiration to me for constantly rising above.

Recommended for: Fans of Angelou’s poetry and anyone interested in what it was like to grow up as an African-American in the South during segregation.

Price: $3.99 (Kindle) or $5.94 (paperback) on Amazon

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