Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

If you’re new here, then you alone are not sick of hearing this: I was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in order to write a curriculum for ninth grade homeschoolers in a class I am teaching this year. I was really hoping this one would stick, even though it’s a touch longer than I would be including, ideally. Punch line: I am not going to include it in the curriculum, though I would recommend the book.

I can’t imagine the vast majority of you are not familiar with Maya Angelou and her work. Nonetheless, I eulogized her HERE, so if you are curious about her, that would be a good place to read a few paragraphs about her life and work. In short, she’s one of the most famous authors of several generations and had a varied career from civil rights activist to poet to Broadway singer. Her work has inspired and educated millions of people around the world, largely through her poetry and her series of memoirs about growing up Black in America through the twentieth century and sometimes poor and sometimes abused or neglected.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings might be her most-read work, a memoir first in the series and chronologically covering from birth to age sixteen. It’s autobiography, which is why it has some plot and continuity issues (not in factuality, but in flow). It moves in fits and lurches, which is probably how Angelou’s memory functions and also how she managed to glean the important bits from her early story. It’s really uneven, but how else would it be? Her life from age three to age sixteen was really uneven. And the surprise twist at the end that lacked foreshadowing and any context from earlier? Well, that’s how it went down. I suppose, nowadays, we would demand more of our memoirists/autobiographers, perhaps because there are so many of them and we have so many talented and educated people with a laptop and a story, out there. Angelou could have done some fancy flash-forwards or leaned heavy on unimportant facts early on or something, but it turns out she was ahead of her time as it was, breaking ground as a story-teller in her day and age and for her gender and race and any number of other things.

I like the idea of giving trigger warnings for some books. This one! There is (graphic) child rape in it, teen sex and sexuality, abuse, racism (duh), and even some lightly-mentioned murder and assault. Racism is a large part of why this book exists, so that would really only recommend it to a lot of people. But the section about Angelou’s rape by a boyfriend of her mother’s is pretty rough. And I found that both that scene and the later chapters dealing with her sexuality to be more brutal because she was so uninformed and confused through all of it, abandoned, neglected. Seeing these things through the eyes of ignorance made them more painful when there are no heroes swooping in, no redeeming, climatic moments. The rape, especially, becomes part of the “tapestry” of her mind and emotions, lying dormant where no one will walk through it with her.

Which is why I decided to shelve this one for my ninth grade English class. There are things to explore, here, which is made clear by the sheer number of people and especially students who have read it through the years since 1969. It’s a modern American classic and has been translated around the world. I had a hard time seeing it as a triumph of the spirit that many others claim it is. I thought Angelou barely emerged from the story at all, let alone as some sort of heroine. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but she ended up still confused, still unsupported, still young and somehow naïve in strange ways. Sure, we go on a childhood journey that is worth exploring, but partly because of the real-life depravity and pain. Who she would become, the Maya Angelou of world-wide fame, isn’t at all evident by the end of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (which was the first of the six-part series).

There are wonderful things about this book which make otherwise smart people say things like the rape scene is “tasteful” and appropriate for children. (Yes, it is told from the perspective of a child but she actually describes being ripped open.) For one, Angelou’s language is at times poetic. There are many moments of insight. The perspective is refreshingly different and the way she puts herself into her own mind as a child is admirable, candid, searing. There are no literary mistakes here: we are walking down a clear path of reminiscence and consideration. And to top it off, we get to take a trip down history lane, including the dark underbelly of Jim Crow and America’s long relationship with racism but also in a million, little details (though it’s worth noting that Angelou’s experience is not that of the Everyman. She appears to have a frequently unique, sometimes Jazz Age, Black Wonderland-ish childhood and coming-of-age).

It’s certainly worth the read and definitely a recommend, but for whom and under what circumstances? I would say high school is the earliest I would have a person read this, and even then I wouldn’t have just any high schooler read it. There are important moments for everyone, but there are also moments that would make it dangerous waters for someone who has been traumatized by childhood abuse (or going to be when reading this). Being a now somewhat outdated memoir, it would read as dry for many but just as many people are going to find it beautiful and interesting and thought-provoking.

QUOTES:

“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” (p4).

“The tragedy of lameness seems so unfair to children that they are embarrassed in its presence. And they, most recently off nature’s mold, sense that they have only narrowly missed being another of her jokes” (p11).

“It seemed that the peace of a day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect” (p16).

“…wash as far as possible, then wash possible” (p27).

“…but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their role” (p31).

“The custom of letting obedient children be seen and not heard was so agreeable to me that I went one step further: obedient children should not see or hear if they chose not to do so” (p41).

“I don’t think they she ever knew that a deep-brooding love hung over everything she touched” (p57).

“After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver’s seat. How long, merciful Father? How long?” (p132).

“Who could teach a dreamy, romantic ten-year-old to call a spade a spade?” (p140).

“…and after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl” (p142).

“It was awful to be a 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. We should all be dead” (p180).

“As a species, we were an abomination. All of us” (p181).

“They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared” (p197).

“The intensity with which young people live demands that they ‘blank out’ as often as possible” (p201).

“…even when they were wrong they were wrong aggressively, while I had to be certain about all my facts before I dared to call attention to myself” (p215).

“The needs of a society determine its ethics…” (p224).

“This belief [in criminality] appeals particularly to one who is unable to compete legally with his fellow citizens” (225).

“…surrender, in its place, was an honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice” (p249).

“The house was smudged with unspoken thoughts and it was necessary to go to my room to breathe” (p261).

“The unsaid words pushed roughly against the thoughts that we had no craft to verbalize, and crowded the room to uneasiness” (p263).

“…nothing beats a trial but a failure …. Can’t Do is like Don’t Care. Neither of them have a home” (p265).

“She comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy” (p268).

“You ask for what you want, and you pay for what you get” (p270).

“Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity” (p271).

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