I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Book Review

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Book Cover

4 Stars

The first volume in Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not an easy read. It picks up when she’s three and her brother is four and they’re being shipped from California to Arkansas–alone on a train. They live with their paternal grandmother for years. Maya writes poignantly and heart-breakingly, but never with self-pity, about life as an African-American girl in a segregated South.

I’m having a hard time writing this review. I occasionally run into this problem with memoirs. Who am I to judge what someone has had the courage to put on display for all the world to read? They have generally lived through experiences that I don’t even want to think about.

Maya, or Marguerite as she’s mostly called in the book, is a “tender-hearted” soul. She’s intelligent, she’s a reader, she’s a dreamer, but she has no prospects, simply because of the color of her skin. She unflinchingly lays down her history. There were parts that I had an unbelievably hard time reading, but by sharing them, Maya lets the world remember what segregation leads to, and even lets others who have shared some of her experiences know that they are not alone. Some sections left me feeling sickened by the casual cruelty of humanity, others left me infuriated for the same reason. I was never indifferent.

It’s not all darkness and misery though. She has good times growing up too. There’s one scene at a picnic that stands out as a beautiful bright spot. And when she meets some of the women who become her mentors, they are spots of hope also, encouraging us to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves.

I did feel like this book just kind of stopped. I guess you could say that it stopped when her childhood ended, but there’s not much of a conclusion or a wrap up.

I have to admit that I wasn’t too clear on why, exactly, the caged bird sings.  Luckily, Wikipedia had the answer. “The title of the book comes from the third stanza of [Paul Laurence Dunbar’s] poem ‘Sympathy’:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings”

It makes sense now and it’s an absolutely perfect title.

Pick this up to read a story of survival against the odds. Actually, she more than survives. Wikipedia describes her as “one of the most honored writers of her generation” and follows up with a long list of honors and awards.

Banned Books Week Poster
Let’s go back to Wikipedia to see why this modern classic is number six on the American Library Association’s list of the most banned/challenged books of this decade.  “According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to the book’s depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence.  Some have been critical of its sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions.”

Wow.  People are completely missing the point.  

Lesbianism?  Not there at all.  Questions about sexual identity?  Yes.  Any acts that could possibly be construed as lesbianism?  Not at all.  And so what if there were?  I won’t tell you who to love if you don’t tell me who I can love.

Premarital cohabitation?  Yes.  It’s an autobiography–she can’t exactly lie about it.  People live together before they get married.  Always have and always will.  Get over it.

Pornography?  Only if you use Wesley Scroggins’ definition of the term.  People who see the sexual acts in this book as pornography are the ones whose morals I question.  While we’re on this one, let’s tackle sexually explicit.  I thought Maya Angelou presented the facts as tactfully as she could while still making it clear what happened.  There was nothing explicit about it.

Violence?  Sure is in there.  And you know what?  A lot of it is the racist whites in the town assaulting and lynching black men.  It happened.  It absolutely shouldn’t have.  But if we don’t remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Irreverent religious depictions?  Get a sense of humor.  Some funny stuff happens in church.  I’ve had to sit under my daddy’s watchful eye and hold in gales of laughter in church.  Any of us who have spent much time in church can probably say the same.  But you know what?  That’s one scene.  Maya’s Momma is one of the most God-fearing, truly Christian souls you will meet in or out of literature.  Read.  The.  Book.  People!

Not one person who has challenged the book will tell you that the book is a history of an ugly time in our nation’s history.  It’s the story of a young girl surviving and eventually thriving.  It’s about her taking the worst that people could throw at her and moving on.  It’s ultimately about hope.  Because if Maya Angelou can make it through all that she made it through, I (And you.  And you.  And youandyouandyouandyouandyou) can make it through whatever troubles we have.

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  1. Great post. The concensus throughout the blogosphere seems to be that we have the intelligence to decide what would or would not like to read. I remember reading Caged Bird when it first came out in 1969, I think. And now it's on my short list since I recently read The Heart of a Woman and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. I've collected all the previous titles to read in order of their publication. Thanks again for a great review and for calling attention to Banned Books Week.

  2. Great review!! I've read this book several times, along with Maya Angelou's other books. Reading this makes me want to revisit this one! 🙂

  3. I think it's fantastic that you're reading banned books for this week! (I may copy you next year, I just wish I'd thought of it for this year). I read The Caged Bird Sings many years ago. I found it heart-breaking and inspiring and liked the book, for the most part. When I saw your post here I couldn't for the life of me understand why this would be a banned book so I looked it up and read this same info you posted here.

    It's ludicrous that this is a banned book! It's a memoir of a time in a young girl's life. These are the things that happened to her. The non-fiction nature of the book itself is an arguments against banning it – this is real life people, it's messy and complicated but beautiful, too.

    The banned book situation is a frustrating one!
    Wonderful post!
    ~ Amy

  4. Thanks for posting this review. It's on a list of books I eventually want to read all of, but now that I have read your review, I'm excited to read it sooner rather than later. Thanks for your insights.

  5. This sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for posting a banned book review! I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and reviewed it. These two banned books have similar themes. I'm putting this on my TBR. Thanks!

  6. AWESOME post! YAY for reading banned books! I think your post about this title was just great…you really gave readers (including me) a chance to peek inside the cover to see what we're in store for without laying out the while story. The way you circled back to point out why the book was on the "banned" list and why the points were or were not valid, BRAVO. I may have to check this one out in the near future…my BBW selection is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Here here for reading rebels! Happy reading….

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