Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Title:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author:  Maya Angelou
Publication Information:  Bantam Books (my edition). 1969 (original). 246 pages.
ISBN:  0553279378 / 978-0553279375

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember."

Favorite Quote:  "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."

I have long been familiar with Maya Angelou's work through her work as a civil rights activist and through the numerous times her work is cited by others. I have long found much of what she wrote inspirational. I have bookmarked, re-read, and shared many of her quotes.

This is the first time, however, that I have read one of her biographies in its entirety. In her life, Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, detailing different aspects of her life. I Know Why the  Caged Bird Sings is the first of the seven. The book was originally published in 1969, when Maya Angelou was forty-one years old. It tells of her life from childhood to the age of seventeen - the years 1928 to 1945.

This is the story of a child growing up from Missouri to Arkansas to California and back again. The book is an episodic story, much like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and like Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. All the books are the coming of age stories of young women if difficult social and economic circumstances. So it goes with this book.

The story is a harsh and sad one, dealing with poverty, racism, abandonment, rape, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. There are moments of joy and love also, but mostly, the book is a series of sad truths told in an explicit, graphic manner. For that reason, the book has found its way on and off of school curricula. In other words, parents, use your judgment as to the appropriate age for your child to read this book. This is not an easy book to read and an even more difficult one to discuss. Yet, it is an important one for this history is part of the fabric of our nation.

The only other Maya Angleou work I have read in its entirety is Letter to My Daughter. That book is a collection of essays based on her own life that offer advice for a young woman growing up. Now knowing read the biographic background adds a whole new level of understanding to those letters and to her other words I hear quoted. That book seeks to inspire and educate; this one almost seems to want to shock.

That is perhaps the biggest surprise of this book. I expect to find the inspiration I have always found in Maya Angelou's words, and I don't, at least not in the words themselves. This book is more about shaking people's comfort level and forcing a look at the harshness of life that some have to face. The events related are more tragic than inspirational. The writing is dark, matching the tone of the events themselves. The story is told with an emotional detachment that is perhaps necessary for survival in those circumstances. No, the inspiration to be found in this book is not in the writing. However, Maya Angelou had courage to live this life, the courage to move forward from the events described, and the courage to tell the story in such a public way. That is where the inspiration lies.


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