Skip to main content

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Cover image © Virago Press.
I have often been unsure about where in the grand scheme of all things literary Maya Angelou fits. Last August, whilst considering my teaching options for AS Level literature, the decision was reached to switch from teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife to Angelou’s collection And Still I Rise.

In the absence of the ubiquitous York Notes to provide information on the poetry, it made sense to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only to shed some light on the context of the poetry, but to answer a nagging question: who is Maya Angelou?

Caged Bird is the 1969 autobiography of Angelou’s early years in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the USA, through to the age of seventeen. As soon as you learn that she is living with her paternal grandmother, Momma, you realise that her family history is bound to be laced with complexities and confusion. A recurrent theme is the pervading sense of abandonment felt by Maya and her older brother Bailey at the hands of her parents and the lack of a sense of belonging that goes along with that.

Being set in 1930s and onwards, in a Southern US state, means it is inevitable that racism should play a part in the story. Although Momma seems atypical as she is a respected black female businesswoman in this small, racially segregated community, the presence of discrimination slowly makes its way into the young Angelou’s conscious. Incidents ranging from having to hide her Uncle Willie under vegetables to hide him from a Ku Klux Klan posse, to a ‘powhitetrash’ girl flashing her pubic hair at Momma, and to more subtle forms of racism such as a white employer insisting on calling her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Marguerite’.

As the autobiography progresses, as does the turbulence in Angelou’s life and you begin to realise it is exactly that which makes her such an appealing human being to read about. From the graphic descriptions of her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, to driving her father home from Mexico when he was too drunk to do so himself, and all the way up to her first sexual encounters, the reader is often shocked, confused and enraged – for a variety of reasons.

I am not a fan of autobiographies, but there is something strangely compelling about this one. There are moments where I wish she’d said more – for example during her time living rough in California and when she gains employment as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. Equally, there will be parts where some readers wish she’d said less.

In all, Caged Bird is a must for anyone interested in an historical first-hand account of a young black American female beginning to make sense of a world which seemingly does not value her presence. If, like me, you are more interested in humanity in general, it is an equally worthwhile read.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

Cover image. © Penguin Books. I stumbled across Nuruddin Farah’s novels when searching for something written by a Somali author. Perhaps due to the conflict that has raged for years in Somalia, it is very difficult to find much from Somali writers published in English. From a Crooked Rib was published in 1970 and tells the story of Ebla, a young, orphaned, illiterate nomadic girl, who runs away from her encampment. She takes the decision to leave upon learning of her Grandfather’s intention to marry her off to an older man within their Jes (a group of families living in an encampment together). She firstly escapes to a town, Belet Amin, where she finds her cousin and his pregnant wife. She also finds a guide and confidante in a character known only as the widow. Things seem settled until, yet again, Ebla finds her freedom compromised by a male character – this time her cousin, whose wife and child Ebla has been nursing. In her haste she leaves Belet Amin with the w

The Bakiga Window: Taufiq Islamic Primary School: Part II

In a manner so typically Ugandan, Yasim approaches silently and politely asks whether he can have a word with me – it is one of those ironies that a word has to be had in order to have a word with someone. Irony aside, he has heard back from the Sheikh and arranged an appointment for me. It is Wednesday 20 th April and once more I find myself en route to Taufiq Islamic Primary School. The morning started in the usual way: waking up sleepy students, ensuring that everyone had 'taken' breakfast and had a supply of bottled water, and then walking with the group down the hill, into the town. At the foot of the hill, the group scattered into many fragments, with everyone off in search of their own adventures. I head straight on, past the noise of the metal workers, over to Taufiq. After having had to beat a hasty retreat last week , I was unsure of who would be in my reception committee. Teacher Bright was the first to greet me, before taking me inside to m

Beach Huts, Southwold, Suffolk

Sleeping beach huts on Southwold Beach, Suffolk. Safely back from my annual visit to Rotterdam, my parents invited me to spend a few days with them in a small holiday cottage in Southwold, Suffolk. Give or take driving through Newmarket a few years back when studying at Anglia Ruskin University, I'd never really seen much of the county. Southwold itself is a beautiful seaside resort which happens to be the home of Adnams , a well known brewery, which means that for a small place there are a healthy number of pubs - suddenly Dad's choice of location made sense . On the early afternoon of Wednesday 20th February  I took a walk to the Harbour Inn to meet my parents for lunch. The pub was just under two miles away from Grace Cottage , where we were staying. This gave me the opportunity to take some pictures of the sea. On our way towards the see we also spotted  Georgie Glen  from Waterloo Road humming happily to herself on the High Street. Southwold is lovely,