Updated on September 25, 2015
23. ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou
I have owned this book for a very, very long time – probably longer than 10 years – but it took seeing Toni Morrison at the Hay Festival this month to actually make me start reading it.
I think the main reason I’ve avoided it is that, until relatively recently, I’ve suffered from big-book-o-phobia. That never stopped me buying them, of course, but they would just sit unread on my shelves unread for years. That’s what happened with Maya Angelou’s Collected Autobiographies, but now that I’ve started them I can’t wait to read more.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first of six autobiographies and it covers Maya Angelou’s tumultuous early life. Following her parents’ split, Maya (3) and her brother, Bailey (4), were sent from Missouri to live with their grandmother (Momma) and Uncle Willie in Stamps, Arkansas. Although the family lived relatively well during the Great Depression and World War II thanks to their general store, the children did witness the hand-to-mouth reality of their many African American customers.
Four years later, Maya’s father returned and took her and her brother back to Missouri to live with their mother. During that time Maya was raped by a friend of her mother’s, Freeman. Maya told the family and Freeman was arrested, released and beaten to death, probably by Maya’s uncles. Believing that she had killed him by naming him, Maya took a vow of silence that would last six years. Maya and Bailey returned to Stamps, where Maya discovered her love of literature. When she was 14 they moved in with their mother again, this time in California. There Maya became the first black streetcar conductor, was briefly homeless and gave birth to her son. Yes, this is only the first book!
Clearly this story was never going to be boring but, as well as having a fascinating tale to tell, Angelou has great literary style. She writes with great finesse, perfectly balancing humour and tragedy.
This was a book that Angelou didn’t want to write. Her editor, Robert Loomis, tried to convince her and when she repeatedly refused he said:
“It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible.”
That lit a fire under Angelou and Caged Bird is testament to the fact that autobiography can indeed be written as literature. (Loomis clearly knew what he was doing.)
This is an utterly absorbing book that isn’t afraid to face taboos head on. As well as talking about rape, racism and sexuality, Angelou describes her own struggles with being black and being a woman. At times she hates her race and at other times she is unspeakably proud of it. The child and teenage Angelou is often guilt-ridden and confused, but she is just finding her footing in a complex world and laying the foundations for the incredible woman she would become.
I can’t get enough of Angelou’s story and I’m champing at the bit to read the next instalment, Gather Together in my Name. If you love autobiographies, you’ll lap this one up. If you don’t, you’ll also lap it up. It’s just awesome.
Why not read the book and let me know what you think?