Defying the Odds
(A Book Review of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
The first volume in a five part nonfiction autobiography series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles Maya Angelou’s coming-of-age in the segregated South during the 1930’s.
“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.”
Told in the first person reflective prose, the multi-talented Angelou recounts her early years and childhood affected by racism and apathy, her love for her brother Bailey, the solace she finds in books and growing up both with her Momma in Stamps, Arkansas and her mother in San Francisco at the outset of World War II. Each chapter is told in an episodic manner akin to reading a short story that makes it so easy “to take in” and digest. Yet I believe what gives the book its overall charm is in how it engages the reader is its elegant and virtually hypnotic voice that will carry you through page after page, amidst Maya’s struggle in face of racial discrimination, injustice and childhood molestation in between light-hearted, laugh-out-loud moments. It’s like listening to jazz music in that the book doesn’t once skip a beat — surprising, exciting, and inspiring all at once!
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.”
Another thing that draws the reader in is in how Angelou conjures up images, places and richly depicts people with vividness and clarity as if you were “in that moment,” a part of it. But what I relate to the most is her passion for reading and love of literature that eventually helped her overcome racism and trauma. Through the power of the written word she found an ally to make her deal with her raging feeling of displacement, insecurity and subsequent guilt over a man she thought she had a hand of killing. Ultimately, her reading helped her not only in accepting her identity but also into molding her to the authentic woman she is today.
“I reasoned that I had given up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable than my loss.”
It has been remarked that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a milestone in African-American Literature in that it transcended what has been thought of the bland straightforward autobiography and challenge its conventions by elevating it to an art form. Such was the momentous life of Maya Angelou that it’s hard to believe that her real-life account makes you appraise that indeed truth, the human truth as Angelou calls it, is stranger than fiction and without a doubt it speaks directly to the human soul.
“You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”
The book’s ending leaves much to be desired and it almost rendered me speechless, gagging, and impatient to know what comes next; nonetheless it likewise gives the reader a refreshing sensation of rebirth for in Maya’s story of survival we too have finally found our own identity with hearts bursting with pride at the discovery of self-worth and dignity.
I know why the caged bird sings — it sings to find its voice, its freedom.
Book Details: Book #13 for 2011
Published by Bantam Books
(Mass Market Paperback, March 1971 Edition)
Started: April 28, 2011
Finished: May 1, 2011