i have vague memories of reading maya angelou’s i know why the caged bird sings in middle school, and i remember thinking even then that i needed to read it again when i was older to fully understand it. at the age of eleven i wasn’t quite ready to understand some of the things that happen in the book, nor did i know how to process much of the information. so here we are, a mere twenty-one years later, finally returning to a book i have been wanting to re-read for years.
i know why the caged bird sings is the first of maya angelou’s six-part autobiographical series and covers the years of her early life until the age of sixteen. over the course of the book we journey with maya – and her brother bailey – from california to stamps, arkansas, to st louis back to stamps and finally to san francisco.
when maya is 3 and bailey 4, they are sent on a train from their divorcing parents in california to live with their grandmother in stamps, a small town in rural arkansas. there they are raised under the strict, watchful eye of their grandmother and their uncle willie.
momma, as they call their grandmother, is one of the most prominent black women in the town – not an easy feat in the pre-depression south – and as such she works hard to ensure maya and bailey grow up to be proper southern black children. she ensures they do well in school, speak politely to their elders, and complete their chores every day. the lessons she teaches her grandchildren will see them through their tumultuous childhoods and into adolescence.
angelou tells her story frankly, with little embellishment. there are feelings of loneliness and isolation; there is an honest depiction of the abuse she suffered as a child; there is candor when talking about the brief sexual encounter that left her pregnant and clueless at the age of sixteen. but through it all is angelou’s unique voice, inviting the reader to share her life experiences.
over the years i know why the caged bird sings has received incredible praise as well as harsh criticism. while some people love angelou’s honesty, openness, and – in my opinion – beautiful writing, others dislike the same, especially her frank discussions of sexuality. some school districts have gone so far as to ban her books so that teachers can no longer include it as assigned reading.
my thoughts on banning books – and this one in particular – could take up an entirely separate post, so for today i will leave you with the below passage from the book and with my sincere recommendation to read it if you get the chance. i don’t think you’ll be sorry.
as i ate she began the first of what we later called ‘my lessons in living.’ she said that i must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. that some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. she encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. that in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations .
my goodreads rating: 4 out of 5 // average rating is 4.14
crossing off the popsugar reading list: a banned book. it’s not banned everywhere, but i’m not sure how many other chances i would have to cross this one off.
currently reading: how not to travel the world by lauren juliff, and just getting started with moon tiger by penelope lively, my next booker read.
fyi: i underlined a lot passages throughout my reading, so i’m putting them all in another post.
ps — i just ordered gather together in my name, the second volume of angelou’s autobiographies, and i am looking forward to bringing it back with me after the holidays!
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