“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou: Review
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was a feast of imagery. There was no literal caged bird, but you could see what she meant. Growing up in a shameful phase of American History, we see the author suffer a childhood without innocence, a racist society and a feeling of helplessness in the face of history and prejudice.
She sings, however. The author refuses to give in to the low expectations that surround her, she refuses to become bitter after so much difficulty and she ends this part of her autobiography as a resilient optimistic woman.
I was struck by her candour. Was it oversharing? The author tells us about sexual abuse, rape, her changing body, her seduction of the father of her child – all very openly and vividly. I would have thought that these were more usually the sorts of things one would write about only for yourself, or a therapist – but there it all was. Why? I suppose to ensure that these things were told: that this was her history and her experience – that what went on in private was as true and valid as those things traditionally shared.
Despite this openness there were elements of her story I just didn’t ‘get’ – and I assume, perhaps foolishly, that she was unaware of the answers, and so could not write them.
The relationship that she had with her parents was bizarre and unexplained. Marguerite’s parents’ marriage was over and the children were sent to stay with their grandmother – but the duration of visits were open-ended, and only after various crises were they moved or returned. The move to stay with Mother Dear was catastrophic, leaving Marguerite the victim of rape, robbed of her childhood. All of the parent figures seemed a little vague in terms of their own lives, their status and their difficulties. Marguerite’s parents in particular seemed to be loving but irresponsible, with odd priorities that were never fully explored.
Undoubtledly, Angelou can write – but I wonder how much of the success of her writing is down to the setting in which she was raised. She brought the era to life, selecting episodes from her life that made clear the horrors of the time. There were entertaining passages also – I liked it when the woman in church attacked the preacher, and the moment in the woods when Marguerite makes a friend and manages to capture something of a childhood.
Apart from the rape, the low point for me was the trip to the white dentist, who refused to help Marguerite – suffering terrible toothache – because she was Black. It reminded me of the brainwashing of Nazi Germany, when people were fed so much propaganda that they hated the Jews for no other reason than that. It shows the capacity for evil and prejudice that humans have.
I was struck by her identity with her race, and how – at this time in her life at least – she saw herself as identified by her race. I suppose society had seen to that.
One example of this was the fight that the community gathered in the Store to listen to. When it looked as if Joe Louis was going down, she writes:
My race groaned. it was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through the slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.
A fight between two men became a metaphor encompassing all the racial tension she was living through. This scene reminded me of my post “Spoilsport” where I fail to have this kind of identification. Louis triumphs and the chapter ends:
It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.
I loved the imagery in the book that brought to live both events and ideas. For example:
The Depression must have hit the white section of Stamps with cyclonic impact, but it seeped into the Black area slowly, like a thief with misgivings.
(I’ll spare you the analysis. Evaluation: smashin’)
The most striking feature is the character of Marguerite herself. And all the while, there was something tragic about the fact that every time she mentioned how old she was, I was visualising someone much older. Her childhood lacked innocence. She had passions and abilities and dreams – and despite the way things were, and the future everyone else expected, she valued her life and made her own way. By the end of this book, the author had grown into a strong individual.
And this window into the life of Maya Angelou brings us a warning that the racism described was very real and not so long ago. It also brings us hope that perseverance can bring about success.