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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.

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