I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography of Maya Angelou’s chaotic childhood from her first memories through the age of 16. She lived in more places with more people in parenting roles than I have had in a lifetime. She and her beloved brother, Bailey, were mostly raised by their strict, no-nonsense grandmother (“Momma”) in Stamps, Arkansas in an all-Black community during segregation. You will respect Momma for her entrepreneurial savvy that sometimes resulted in “white folk” borrowing money from her to get by. You will meet Willie, Momma’s son and Maya’s uncle, who has a disability and is often ridiculed by the community. Uncle Willie keeps a watchful eye on Maya and Bailey, and they do the same for him.
Maya and Bailey visit their parents only sporadically, and when they do, things always go wrong. “Mother” is a beautiful, independent women who tends to focus on her own life, and “Daddy” is a loud, handsome man full of bravado who hasn’t really grown up himself. They have various spouses and significant others, and all of them prove to be ill-equipped to raise children.
During one trip to visit Mother, Maya was raped. She was 8 years old at the time. The scene is horrifying but not graphically told, partly because as an 8-year old, Maya didn’t have a good understanding of what was happening. Still, she felt tremendous guilt and shame about the incident and was unable to trust others for a very long time.
Maya grew up during that terrible time in American history when segregation was how we interacted with each other. One of the scenes described in the book has really stuck with me. When Maya was young, she had horrible tooth pain, and the Black dentist was gone. Momma was convinced that the White dentist would help, and so they went to see him. At the back door, the White dentist refused them entrance and he made despicable comments about treating a Black patient. Readers later learn that Momma had loaned the White dentist money, and that’s why she was convinced he would help her granddaughter who was in pain. There are many injustices described in the book, but this one left me feeling angry and incredulous – why would a medical provider do such a thing?
Despite segregation, I was struck by the diversity of the people in Maya’s life. Uncle Willie had a disability and she saw how people laughed and ridiculed him; at times, she had white and Hispanic friends; she lived in the South in a deeply segregated Black community and she also lived in San Francisco where Black Americans had different opportunities, albeit certainly not their fair share. She also observed the “disappearance” of Japanese Americans living in San Francisco after Pearl Harbor was bombed. When President Roosevelt ordered the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans, many of their homes and small businesses were taken by others. Maya, who was known for her empathy and social activism, was surely impacted by the diversity of these people in her life.
This book is required reading for many American students – it is a unique way to learn American history from the viewpoint of a Black American during segregation. There have, however, been many attempts to ban the book. According to the American Library Association, it is #3 in the “Top 100 Frequently Challenged Books.” In my view, history is something to be faced and not hidden away. Our children need to understand how America has evolved over time – much of our history is admiral but some of it is painful, immoral, and unequitable. If we are going to teach the good parts, we also need to teach the bad parts.
I was curious about the title of this book. Maya Angelou borrowed the “caged bird” symbolism from a poet who wrote:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free,
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings,
I know why the caged bird sings.by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Maya Angelou was a strong advocate for equality and justice. If you have any interest in social justice or American history, then you should definitely read this book. This book was a 4-star book for me – and a must read because of its historical importance.
Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings or any other book by Maya Angelou? If so, what did you think about these books?
What other books have you read about segregation – either in the United States or other countries – that you would recommend to others?
What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?