I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Info

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Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and
memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry,
and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya
Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved
worldwide.
 
Sent by their mother to live with their
devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and
her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of
the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at
her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many
times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a
lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for
herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of
great authors (“I met and fell in love with William
Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

 
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.

 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her
own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous
dignity.”—James Baldwin

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

0

Nov 29, 2013

I must confess I've read precious little Angelou in my time, but I'll never forget the day she tipped me $20.

It was some random gray day in Marquette, Michigan, must've been the winter of '00, and I was washing dishes as usual at the downtown Landmark Inn. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "hey, there's a VIP coming in, put on your bellboy hat and head out front." I didn't put on my bellboy hat because I didn't have one — just the same dirty, drenched apron I wore every day in that I must confess I've read precious little Angelou in my time, but I'll never forget the day she tipped me $20.

It was some random gray day in Marquette, Michigan, must've been the winter of '00, and I was washing dishes as usual at the downtown Landmark Inn. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "hey, there's a VIP coming in, put on your bellboy hat and head out front." I didn't put on my bellboy hat because I didn't have one — just the same dirty, drenched apron I wore every day in that year or two between high school and college, at least whenever I wasn't sitting in my shitty little apartment, or wasting time and brain cells someplace else.

Stepping out into the sub-zero winds, I saw before me the fanciest tour bus I'd ever seen in my whole entire life. Even to this day, I've never seen a better one. In fact, the only thing fancier than the bus itself was the mink coat on the elderly black woman exiting it, and I'll never forget the words she mumbled to my wet, skinny ass, there on the frozen sidewalk of my youth:

"Boy, you'll catch yo' death out here..."

If I'd remained outdoors another half hour or so, I suppose I may've proven her right, but instead I hauled her six or seven massive bags inside, into the elevator, and up to her room on the fifth (?) floor.

Maya Angelou gave me $20, and I never even read her fucking book.

What an asshole I am... ...more
5

Feb 11, 2017

Maya Angelou was a poet and Nobel laureate who once gave an address at President Clinton's inauguration. Before she won her multitudes of awards and honors, Maya was raised in rural Stamps, Arkansas by her grandmother and uncle during the depression. First published in 1969 and now considered a modern classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details Angelou's tumultuous childhood in poignant detail.

Born Marguerite Johnson and often called Ritie, Maya and her older brother Bailey were taken to Maya Angelou was a poet and Nobel laureate who once gave an address at President Clinton's inauguration. Before she won her multitudes of awards and honors, Maya was raised in rural Stamps, Arkansas by her grandmother and uncle during the depression. First published in 1969 and now considered a modern classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details Angelou's tumultuous childhood in poignant detail.

Born Marguerite Johnson and often called Ritie, Maya and her older brother Bailey were taken to live with their grandmother at young ages following their parents' divorce. Even though the south was still in the throes of Jim Crow and Stamps was at the forefront of segregation, young Maya appeared to enjoy a loving childhood. Raised by a strict, church going grandmother and uncle, Maya and Bailey turned to both books and each other for comfort. Devouring books like candy, both children quickly advanced through the Stamps educational system, two grades ahead of schedule.

When Maya was eight and Bailey nine, their father came to Arkansas and brought them to live with their mother in St Louis. Coming from a multi racial family, members of Maya's maternal family were light skinned enough to pass for white and some integrated into the German community. It was in St Louis, a city that should have afforded Maya more opportunities than rural Stamps, that she experienced the low point in her childhood. Physically abused by her mother's fiancé, Maya recovered and returned to Stamps and a loving environment. She and Bailey continued to live with their grandmother until they had advanced beyond what the education system offered them in the segregated south. With no future other than a house servant or cotton picker, the two were returned to their mother, now living in desegregated California.

While in California, Maya experienced highs and lows as well as Jim Crow rearing its ugly head, the low point of which was living in a car in a junk yard for a month. These experiences, including being reunited with both parents and establishing relationships with them, made for events that Maya could reflect on later on in life in this volume. I find it extraordinary that Maya could overcome being abused as a young child and still manage to graduate school two years ahead of schedule at a high academic level. This is a testament to her grandmother as well as her personal fabric. This fabric lead her to be the first colored streetcar operator in San Francisco and later on the poet laureate that people recognize to this day.

Maya Angelou noted her writing influences as Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as Booker T Washington who encouraged a generation of African Americans to achieve employment through a stellar education. In her dedication, Angelou also cites her parents as being positive influences in her life after they reconciled. A gifted author and poet who was advanced well beyond her years as a child, Maya graced us with her powerful prose in all of her works of literature. A poignant look into a childhood in the Jim Crow, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reveals the upbringing of a remarkable American woman. A courageous glimpse into Angelou's life, this first memoir of hers easily merits 5 bright stars. ...more
5

Mar 29, 2008

I really enjoyed this book. It was required reading for a University course I took on Adolescent Literature.

This book has been placed on banned book lists by needlessly close-minded people for it's real life content.

The book tastefully addresses issues of molestation, rape, racism. But it does so within the context of the trials and tribulations of growing up as well.

The book presents things in a direct and extremely vivid fashion, but it is not garishly or needlessly graphic. These are issues I really enjoyed this book. It was required reading for a University course I took on Adolescent Literature.

This book has been placed on banned book lists by needlessly close-minded people for it's real life content.

The book tastefully addresses issues of molestation, rape, racism. But it does so within the context of the trials and tribulations of growing up as well.

The book presents things in a direct and extremely vivid fashion, but it is not garishly or needlessly graphic. These are issues that need to be addressed and talked about with adolescents. In fact, earlier generations could have likely benefited from a little more open discussion about such matters.

In any regard, the book is not about these issues, it simply addresses them within the context, which is Maya Angelou's early life from somewhere around age 6 up to about 17 or 18 I believe.

Worth reading, worth having your kids read. Just be sure to discuss it's content with them......like a parent should anyway. ...more
4

Jan 27, 2009


My mother could never really speak to me about the abuse she suffered as a little girl - the closest we came to talking about her experiences occurred when we read this painful and important book together. I imagine that Maya's book has allowed countless women who have suffered similar horrors an opportunity to know they will never be alone in their pain. And perhaps, like my mother, an opportunity to begin to heal by sharing their story with a loved one.

RIP, Maya. Your words have made this
My mother could never really speak to me about the abuse she suffered as a little girl - the closest we came to talking about her experiences occurred when we read this painful and important book together. I imagine that Maya's book has allowed countless women who have suffered similar horrors an opportunity to know they will never be alone in their pain. And perhaps, like my mother, an opportunity to begin to heal by sharing their story with a loved one.

RIP, Maya. Your words have made this planet a better place. If only the rest of us could be half as decent as you. ...more
5

Mar 16, 2019


Even before I started listening to this audio book, I could hear Angelou’s voice, deep and distinctive. I remember seeing her on tv at some point in the past and notably, even though a while ago, when she read a poem she had written for President Clinton’s inauguration. This autobiography of her early years from age four through sixteen makes for a tough story at times, but an amazing telling of it. At four years old, she and her brother Bailey are sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their
Even before I started listening to this audio book, I could hear Angelou’s voice, deep and distinctive. I remember seeing her on tv at some point in the past and notably, even though a while ago, when she read a poem she had written for President Clinton’s inauguration. This autobiography of her early years from age four through sixteen makes for a tough story at times, but an amazing telling of it. At four years old, she and her brother Bailey are sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, a staunchly religious and savvy store owner and their disabled Uncle Willy. They help at the store , go to school and live through times of ugly racism. Four years later they go to live with their mother and at eight years old Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The children return to live with their grandmother, but Maya is so scarred by the attack that she stops speaking for several years.

Yet, amid the bad times in this depiction of the Jim Crow south, there are times of happiness and revelation of what life has to offer. It is back in Stamps that she develops a love of reading and she calls Shakespeare her first white love. She shares the joy of making her first friend and her unconditional love for her brother Bailey. The descriptions of the revival meeting and the church picnic and the days at her grandmother’s store are poetic and she took me there with her wonderful story telling. A few years later, they move back with their mother and it is here in California that we see the impact of the past on her and also see her come of age at sixteen, on her journey to becoming the renown activist, writer, poet. Angelou does nothing short of bare her heart and soul in this deeply personal and affecting narrative.

...more
4

Jun 09, 2015

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The above poem by Maya Angelou (not Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The above poem by Maya Angelou (not from this book, BTW) encapsulates in a few lines why the voices of protest are the loudest, and the literature the most powerful when it is forcefully suppressed. Because the only thing the caged bird can do is sing, he will keep on doing it, lest he go mad. Poetry will keep on flowing out of the decapitated head of Orpheus.

I understand that this book has been banned multiple times. Not surprising, considering that the words of the poet have more power than swords or bullets, as proved time and again by history.

----------------------------------------------------------

Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when their parents' marriage fell apart. It was the early thirties, and the North and the South of USA were poles apart as far as coloured people were concerned; in the North, they were part of the society (albeit an insular one) while in the South, they were the despised 'niggers'.

Maya spent most of the formative part of her childhood down south. Her grandmother ('Momma') was a singularly resourceful woman who owned a store: they managed to live in relative comfort even during the Depression era. However, this material comfort was offset by the fact that they were always the hated 'other' - the 'whitefolk' who lived apart (almost a mythical race, in Maya's young mind) were powerful and whimsical gods who could visit death and destruction any time on any black man or woman. Even the 'powhitetrash', the drifters and squatters who had the fortune to be born into the Anglo-Saxon race, could insult even the propertied black people with impunity.

When she was eight years old, Maya's father took her brother and herself to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here the incident which was to become the turning point of her life happened. The eight-year old girl was raped by her mother's current boyfriend, Mr. Freeman: he managed to wiggle out of jail only to be murdered, presumably by Maya's maternal uncles who were also the town toughs. As a result of this, she became a virtual mute for almost five years.

Sent back to Stamps, Maya continued her zombie-like existence until she was brought back into the world of the living by Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend - she did this by the expedient of introducing the girl to books. Maya found refuge in the world of imagination, and slowly came back to normal.

She again went to live with her mother in California when she was 15. During this sojourn, she visited her father in Southern California where another traumatic even in her life took place. After a frightening journey across the border into Mexico along with her father (when she was forced to drive a car back to the US in the night with him passed out in the back – even though she was not a qualified driver!), Maya was attacked and stabbed by her father’s girlfriend. She quit home and lived for a month in a junkyard, with similar social drop-outs, before returning to her mother.

A month of living in the rough had emboldened the shy and withdrawn girl. Maya decided to get a job as a streetcar conductor, even though the occupation was closed to blacks, and succeeded: the activist and rebel were just emerging. The first instalment of this extended autobiography ends with the picture of Maya as a teen mother, of a child conceived out of a casual sexual encounter which she had just to satisfy that she was ‘normal’ (that is, heterosexual)!

----------------------------------------------------------

Maya writes with a disarming honesty and a genuine sense of humour. Even the most distressing events are discussed casually – the child’s eye view is done really well. The book is eminently readable. Still, is this a great book? I would not say so. Good, yes: genuinely great, no.

The causal tone, for me, took away most of the poignancy. Even the extremely distressing rape incident – though described in gory detail – fails to really make an impact. My personal feeling is that this is the author’s way of coping with personal trauma: you take the emotion out of it. However, it might come across to people that her mother never cared much (I have found this view expressed on one or two of the one-star reviews for this book on this site).

However, I salute Maya’s courage in writing this explicit memoir. Being a black woman, she feels disadvantaged thrice, as she says:

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

So maybe, the best defence is to attack. Throw the hypocrisy of society back in its face. Say: “This is I. Accept me for what I am, whether you like what you see or not!”

...more
4

Sep 25, 2017

I was sitting on a bench as I enjoyed the last bits of warm sunlight the dying summer was oozing out, scrutinizing a newspaper while calculatedly assuming a thoughtful gaze.

This little girl ran up to me. She said "Mister, mister, I know why the caged bird sings!"

I looked up from reading the financial news. "That's great kid. Now run along, can't you see I'm busy?"

I turned back to reading on how poorly the economy was doing. There’s nothing like reading bad news to feed the intellect.

"But I was sitting on a bench as I enjoyed the last bits of warm sunlight the dying summer was oozing out, scrutinizing a newspaper while calculatedly assuming a thoughtful gaze.

This little girl ran up to me. She said "Mister, mister, I know why the caged bird sings!"

I looked up from reading the financial news. "That's great kid. Now run along, can't you see I'm busy?"

I turned back to reading on how poorly the economy was doing. There’s nothing like reading bad news to feed the intellect.

"But mister, mister, the caged bird sings and I know why! I know why, la-di-da, la-di-doo, and so should you!"

She skipped and danced excitedly. A bunch of people were standing around, bestowing benign smiles on the girl and throwing eager looks in my direction as an emphatic plea to hear her out. I heaved a sigh, put down the paper and said:

"Alright little one, tell me all about that bird of yours."

So she started talking. About her grandmother Momma, how strong she was, about her momma Mother Dear, such a beautiful lady, about handsome and kind Brother Bailey and big and absent Father Bailey, about her little life in a little corner of a little shop. The corner, despite its size, offers the perfect vantage point to see what goes on in that big world and in the little minds that inhabit it. She tells excitedly of her sweet childhood memories and shares her keen observations. She offers an insider's view on a part of the world, a part of society, I was completely unfamiliar with. I'd heard about cotton pickers, of course. I saw them depicted in popular culture. But what I saw through her tales were not mere depictions but real life people, worn out by the burdens of their tasks. I saw their fatigue through the small spasms of pain surrounding their lips and quavering shoulders, the absence of the glint in their eyes as they were telling their jokes. But even as I looked into this unknown world many of it felt familiar to me and I realised that this unknown world is my world, our world, only there's this wall. Who put that stupid thing there? The little girl showed me the window in that wall and her generous spirit has left it wide open as the breeze of her story wafted through it.

I willed her to keep talking and she did, with passion and patience.

Suddenly the girl stopped dancing. Looking down at the ground she said, with a voice as tiny as a cat's whisker: "A big man hurt me. Real bad."

She looked up. The playful twinkle was gone. I was ready to stand up, hold her in my arms and tell her things would be fine. Her eyes, defiant, filled with pride and intelligence, told me she would have none of that. She started dancing again, slowly and more deliberately.

More memories ensued. The tale matured into one dealing with one of society's biggest embarrassments, of black people not being allowed to work on tramcars, of dentists not wanting to treat little children with a specific ethnic background. But despite the enormity of all this humiliation, the little girl kept center stage, through her courage, wit and wisdom. Her pace quickened and I heard a melody of personal memories, powerful anecdotes and fiery statements of indignation.

She sang “The house was smudged with unspoken thoughts.”

A bit later she said: “The unsaid words pushed roughly against the thoughts that we had no craft to verbalize, and crowded the room to uneasiness.”

Her apparent eloquence made the melodious statement all the more profound.

The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.

My relief melted my fears and they liquidly stole down my face.

And then, a momentous description of the wall of racism. The girl just told me about how a lady receptionist wouldn’t allow her to file a candidacy for a job she was coveting. The reasons were hidden yet obvious. The girl then sang:

The miserable little encounter had nothing to do with me, the me of me, any more than it had to do with that silly clerk. The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years ago by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. Also because the play must end somewhere.
I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer..

I was awestruck, but she was obviously waiting for me to say something.

"What a wonderful tale! You’re giving that clerk an easy pass there, but I’m sure that once you’re a bit older you’ll reconsider this imagery, however beautiful it is. But how about that bird, little girl? You didn't mention it, let alone the reasons for its singing?"

"I ain’t no little girl no more, mister!"

And with that, she stomped off in a fit of pique and out of my sight.

I wonder if I'll ever see her again.
I sure hope so.
I want to know about that bird. ...more
5

Jan 07, 2014

I have only ever given 5 stars to two autobiographies. One was written by a white English man; the other by a black American woman. On the surface you would think they could have very little in common, yet they do. They both have insight and compassion, which comes through in every sentence. They have both shown enormous courage in almost intolerable situations. In short, they have a common humanity. The white man is Terry Waite. The black woman, Maya Angelou.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by I have only ever given 5 stars to two autobiographies. One was written by a white English man; the other by a black American woman. On the surface you would think they could have very little in common, yet they do. They both have insight and compassion, which comes through in every sentence. They have both shown enormous courage in almost intolerable situations. In short, they have a common humanity. The white man is Terry Waite. The black woman, Maya Angelou.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a book which will play on your emotions. It is not a manipulative book; it is a raw and honest account, eloquently expressed. But if you did not take a deep breath sometimes before starting another page, you would not be human.

It is galling to think that this description of poverty and unreasoning prejudice is within living memory, in a so-called “free” country. In the United States, the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity was set up in 1961, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It precedes the Race Relations Act of 1965, which was the first legislation in the United Kingdom to address racial discrimination. Yet the differences of perception and attitudes between the two countries for the early and middle parts of the 20th Century are enormous.

Perhaps it is the sheer size of the US, but the racial segregation which was ever-present - at least in the Southern States - was never a feature of English life, or life in Great Britain. There was prejudice certainly, and when there was an influx of black people in the 1960's to fulfil specific job vacancies, such as nursing or bus drivers and conductors, some black people suffered much abuse and humiliation from some members of the indigenous white public, such as landladies putting cards saying “no coloureds” in their windows. But the discrimination was never institutionalised. Unlike South Africa and the Southern States of America, there were no separate schools, townships or public toilets. The UK was not a racist society as such, although some individual members of it certainly were.

What comes across in this book, especially to a non-American, is that the racial segregation was condoned. It was the norm at all points. It seems so entrenched that it is startling that any progress could be made from such a point. For this appalling account of ignorance and prejudice is surprisingly recent. Maya Angelou was born in 1928, and was therefore slightly younger than my own mother. And she was describing events which were closer in time to when she was writing them, than we now are ahead in time. It ends in 1944, before the end of World War II. This is the first part of her autobiography, which finally ran to seven volumes, the final volume being published in 2013.

I knew of Maya Angelou's works of course, but somehow had never got around to reading them. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings had been sitting on my bookshelf for 20 years unread. Perhaps part of me suspected it would be a harrowing read, but I had not anticipated its wry humour. Maya Angelou died last year, in 2014. There’s a sort of poignancy in discovering a writer after they have just died. Sometimes it happens because for a short time they achieve more prominence generally. When the reaction is so positive, the experience is tinged with slight regret, nonsensical though it is. For so many long-dead classic authors that opportunity is not open to us from the start. It would have been nice to appreciate them more during their lifetime. Will I carry on reading the continuing parts? Certainly. The five stars are not awarded solely to the person. They are awarded to the work, as they should be. It is an extraordinary first book, especially considering that the author is someone who feels the voice is essential for meaning, someone who was always recognised as a passionate performance poet. From this book alone,

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”

Here is her memory of an inspired natural teacher, Sister Flowers,

“I had read a Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life ... her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing.”

“As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations ... I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on pages”

Perhaps then it is not so surprising to find a poetic turn of phrase, such lyrical prose as,

“in the dying sunlight the people dragged rather than their empty sacks”

or a beautifully evocative description. But be warned. Not everything which is graphic here is beautiful imagery,

“I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air, and made my body light”

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.”

The blurb itself, should you read it, will tell the reader of some very disturbing events which are described, but those parts will prompt a deep emotional reaction. The work also puts much of her poetry in context; the anger and prominent themes in her poetry become all of a piece with the unfolding account of her life. And in this, the staggered telling of her tale is also very effective. She alternated a book of poetry with a book of autobiography, and these memoirs are far more expressive and revealing than one static book of past autobiography could be. The gradual telling of her tale feels more in the present, than it does reflection.

The first volume starts with the author, then called “Marguerite Johnson" at 3 years old, being sent on a train journey with her 4 year old brother. Neither had any idea why they were being sent South to live with their grandmother, “Momma" in the tiny town of “Stamps", Arkansas. Most of this first part is about her life there; her strict upbringing by the poor, but proud and upright, religious woman, who devoted herself to making as good a life as she could for her disabled son and grandchildren,

“I was liked, and what a difference it made.”

The store served the needs of all those in Stamps, mostly workers in the cotton fields. The recent history of slavery is virtually palpable. The conditions at times seemed little better than the past. Each day the workers started with optimism, but they were trapped in a life from which realistically they could never escape; never being paid enough for their work to get out of debt. Yet nearly all these people were hard-working and honest,

“Although there was always generosity in the Negro neighborhood, it was indulged on pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given by Black people to other Blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver. A fact which made the giving or receiving a rich exchange.”

There are wonderful descriptions of her grandmother’s store. It is a hub for the community, a working business, but for young Marguerite it is a cornucopia of smells and sights,

“the store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger”

She remembers the days here, the pride of her handicapped Uncle Willy, the immensely strict regime she and her brother Bailey Junior were expected to cope with. Her grandmother, a businesswoman, was much respected in the exclusively black area of Stamps,

“I remember never believing that whites were really real ... These others, the strong pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren't considered folks. They were white-folks.”

“People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream"

She escaped whenever possible into her fantasy world of books,

“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love ... ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.’ It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar"

“Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.”

As the author grew older, her perception of bigotry, her indignation at the racial unfairness which pervaded everything in her experience, grew. She accepted without understanding the submissive attitudes she was expected to make, and subservience she had to show, observing of Momma,

“She didn’t cotton to the idea that white folks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn't be spoken to insolently”

But her grandmother wanted the best for the two children,

“I swear to God, I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind.”

There is much about loneliness and alienation in this first novel. Maya Angelou tried to cultivate a philosophical attitude to her experiences,

“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between”

“Like most children, I thought if I could face the worst danger voluntarily, and triumph, I would forever have power over it”

But the instances piled one on top of another. Even the wild, neglected and dirty “powhitetrash” children jeered, made fun of, and looked down on all the people in the the black neighbourhood. A doctor, a dentist - people who should have been literally indebted to her grandmother because of the financial help she had afforded them in the past - showed truly shocking insulting behaviour when appealed to for help. The white people almost exclusively treated the black people worse than they would treat their animals. It is difficult to convey without telling the story how each tiny instance was compounded. During a court case,

“The judge had really made a gaffe calling a Negro woman ‘Mrs’”

because, of course, a white person’s perception was that a black person did not deserve the status of respect.

The book seems to escalate until the reader feels that something has to give.

The author reflects that it was perhaps one instance of profound prejudice, which severely affected her brother emotionally, which led to their being sent away from Arkansas. They had only lived there a couple of years, when the two children were collected by their father, a cultured giant of a man, and taken back to live with their mother - “Mother Dear” as Bailey called her - in St. Louis. Their lives from this point take a sudden turn, living with this impulsive beautiful butterfly of a woman with her film-star looks. A crime is committed when Maya is just eight years old. This is brutal; an appalling account to read, both a physically and psychologically raw and graphic description. The child is the victim, but as so often happens, the victim is convinced that she is somehow guilty. Circumstances force her to tell a small lie, and for this too, she cannot forgive herself. The children return to Momma.

The next few years are chronicled in the book with much movement between the adults in the family. They have to cope with extremes in moral codes. From the earliest chapters the reader has been stunned by the extremist Christian doctrine of their grandmother. Beating a child for saying “by the way”, because - never mind whether the child understands or not - it was considered to be blasphemy. Another small incident which haunts the reader, is Bailey Junior being beaten for yearning so much for his mum, that he watched a similar-looking film star, and was late home. There are countless such examples. These are very hard to accept, because these two things were perpetrated by the good people - the ones with a sense of duty and responsibility. The ignorant prejudice in the wider community, outside the town of Stamps, was oddly easier to read about than this, which felt like a betrayal by the adults whom the children trusted.

But later, the moral code is turned on its head. Both Maya’s mother and father were city folk working in a very different world. Her father in Mexico had friends who were almost gangsters, with a completely different sense of morality, although in itself the ethical code was just as strong,

“The needs of a society determine its ethics”.

These parts are very entertaining to read, and must have been an eye-opener to a young teenager from such a narrow background.

The book ends when Maya Angelou is 17. Although her given name was “Marguerite”, she was always called “Maya” because her brother called her “My-a”, trying to say the words “my sister”. To the little girl, that felt like her true identity, not what others called her. There is one episode in the book, where a white woman tried to call her “Mary” for her own personal convenience - “because it was shorter”. That is a hugely emotional part of the book. The reader can sense the profound insult; the hidden history of “ownership”. I gave a mental cheer when Maya managed to turn this around.

At 12 Maya had had her graduation from Lafayette County Training School. I personally found this almost the most affecting part of the book. Maya was a supremely talented and hard-working child. The reader senses her feelings bubbling over - her well-earned pride in her achievements. But yet again, because of an incident involving an ignorant white person, her whole world comes crashing down around her ears,

“Graduation, the hush-hush magic time of frills and gifts and congratulations and diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called. The accomplishment was nothing. The meticulous maps, drawn in three colors of ink, learning and spelling decasyllabic words, memorizing the whole of The Rape of Lucrece - it was for nothing. Donleavy had exposed us. We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.”

Maya Angelou had somehow recovered from the terrible crime against her at 8 years old. How could she possibly recover from this one? How can one person continue to have courage, strength and fight? Isn't it easier just to give up and say, “Yes Ma’am”?

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time. She is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.”

This is a book that will sometimes make you ashamed to be a member of the human race. It is in part a catalogue of Man’s inhumanity to man, woman’s inhumanity to woman. It will also, however, make you proud of what can be achieved. One hopes it was cathartic to write, but it is far more than the plague of misery sagas which have descended onto our bookshelves in recent years. It is nonfiction, but it is as entertaining as a novel; parts of it reading like lyrical prose. It has some devastating descriptions of brutality, yes, but there is much to smile over too, often in her wry little asides,

“The custom of letting obedient children be seen but not heard was so agreeable to me that I went one step further: Obedient children should not see or hear if they chose not to do so”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an important, defining, incredibly brave work for its time of 1969. From a relatively unknown author, a world was firmly introduced to the reality of racial tensions and prejudice in the Southern United States. It was a book which would have been very hard to read without the author’s strength and humour coming through, and it remains so, over 45 years later.

The book grips you from its start. Maya Angelou has a unique ability to make any reader identify with a poor black child, to experience what they experience, from whatever point the reader is in their own life. There is much talk nowadays of the “Black Voice”. Maya Angelou does not alienate. She does not seek to select her audience; she speaks to us all. Her book is self-evidently from a black perspective, but she skilfully makes it the reader’s own, putting us all firmly in the mind of herself as a child. She conveys her various feelings of confusion, pride, hatred, despair, guilt and rage, expressing so well the reasoning behind them at the time.

Her use of dialect is perfectly balanced for a general reader. It is authentic and essential, yet at no point is the reader likely to have to pause, reread and try to interpret. I personally have had far more difficulty with my experience of classic books which attempt to include a written representation of my own native, regional Yorkshire speech. This is part of her great skill as a writer - it flows. She concentrates on our common humanity. This is a book which can, perhaps should, be read by everyone at least once in their lifetime. It shows how far both an individual and a society can progress within one person’s lifetime.

“The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic admiration.”

As tiny Marguerite Johnson might have said - although she would have “corrected” her own grammar, as all people have different vernaculars for different situations, and black people of that time had one “language” for school and academic pursuits, another for their community, and a third to reinforce white people’s expectations of them ...

“We all doin’ well.”




“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase, while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.”

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom ...more
1

Jan 23, 2013

May 2014: I wrote this review a year and a half ago. It is written from the perspective of a parent who cares about what her teenage children read in school. I hope it may be useful to other parents, teens, and anyone else who cares about content and wants to make informed decisions about what they read. I received mostly negative reactions to my review, but also a few positive comments which encouraged me. After a year of dealing with it all, I wanted to be done and move on, so I closed the May 2014: I wrote this review a year and a half ago. It is written from the perspective of a parent who cares about what her teenage children read in school. I hope it may be useful to other parents, teens, and anyone else who cares about content and wants to make informed decisions about what they read. I received mostly negative reactions to my review, but also a few positive comments which encouraged me. After a year of dealing with it all, I wanted to be done and move on, so I closed the comment section. If you wish to read through the comments, you'll see a few posts I wrote in reply. My final comments are in the last two posts. This is my personal reaction to the book, and I support your right to make your own choices about what you read, too.


I read this book because my teenage son was going to be required to read it in his English class at school. I did not want to read the book because I was aware of its content. But I felt it necessary in order to be able to talk to the teacher about my objections. So I did not like this book. My degree in Comparative Literature enables me to recognize some literary value in Caged Bird, as well as historical and social value. I believe Maya Angelou is a talented writer. I admire some of her poetry. But her series of autobiographical books includes too much explicit and disturbing sexual content for me. And I certainly did not want my 15 year old son to have to read it! He did not want to read it and my husband and I completely supported his choice.

The most graphic and disturbing sexual material in Caged Bird involves the rape of the author as an eight year old girl. This horrible experience deeply affects her life. But I believe our teenage children can understand that terrible things like this happen, without needing to be dragged through the muck of the sordid details. Ms. Angelou writes vividly. My son does not want those images in his head, and I fully support him. I can see this book being taught at the college level, but I strongly feel that it is not appropriate for high school required reading. In my son's advanced English class, this book was one of six main texts. In the regular English class, there are only two main texts, and this is one of them. How sad, when there are so many other great literary works to choose from which are clean.

My son's teacher was nice and professional about it. Another English teacher was not so nice. She acted surprised that I would characterize the book as "R-rated." She said that we could see worse things on prime-time TV. Our (my husband's and my) response was "That's why we choose not to watch those TV shows!" It bothered me that she would try to use the "everybody's doing it" excuse. Just because our society's standards of decency continue to plummet, is no reason to embrace them! It is an American Lit class, so I suggested a couple of other texts as options if the purpose was to address the African American experience. But this book is obviously one of that teacher's favorites, so she defended it. The teachers did say that our son could choose to read a different book. However, because the class structure was centered on discussion, we and our son chose to have him read an 'edited version' of Caged Bird instead. I just told him which chapters to skip. And I'm glad that our son happened to have the more sympathetic teacher.

So I'm done with my rant now. Just needed to get that out. I'm glad that I love to read so I can be alert to what my children are exposed to at school. I know other parents who would also object to this book if they were more aware of the content. And I understand that it's hard to keep up with our kids sometimes. I expect we'll run into this problem again at the high school. But on the bright side, I also get to enjoy discussing good books with my children!

...more
4

Sep 02, 2018

4.5 "lyrical, poignant, honest" stars !!!

2018 Honorable Mention Read.

This was a wonderfully written beginning to Ms. Angelou's six volume autobiography. I had been wanting to read this for many years and Jean's gorgeous review pushed me over the edge to add this to my shortlist.

Ms. Angelou's writing appears effortless and clear. The emotions and honesty ring through and you walk alongside her childhood and feel for her pain, enjoy her laughs and cheer her on her adventures.

I love that she 4.5 "lyrical, poignant, honest" stars !!!

2018 Honorable Mention Read.

This was a wonderfully written beginning to Ms. Angelou's six volume autobiography. I had been wanting to read this for many years and Jean's gorgeous review pushed me over the edge to add this to my shortlist.

Ms. Angelou's writing appears effortless and clear. The emotions and honesty ring through and you walk alongside her childhood and feel for her pain, enjoy her laughs and cheer her on her adventures.

I love that she portrays herself with her anger alongside her compassion and speaks honestly about sexual abuse, abandonment, poverty, race relations, jealousy, desire, perseverance and a deep and uncompromising individuality.

I will leave you with one of her painful rants about her race and the race of others:

"It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species we were an abomination. All of us."



I look forward to reading the second volume at some point.

Rest in peace Ms. Angelou and bless you for your contributions to poetry and race relations. ...more
4

Jan 29, 2012

I'm quite ashamed that it's taken me this long to read this book. Maya Angelou is so inspirational to many people so reading about her childhood and adolescence was really special. I found her autobiography tragic and also hopeful at the same time. Things have changed a lot since Angelou's childhood, such as segregation, and colourism in the black community (to an extent). The fact that she went through that period of history and is alive to see the first Black president in US history is just I'm quite ashamed that it's taken me this long to read this book. Maya Angelou is so inspirational to many people so reading about her childhood and adolescence was really special. I found her autobiography tragic and also hopeful at the same time. Things have changed a lot since Angelou's childhood, such as segregation, and colourism in the black community (to an extent). The fact that she went through that period of history and is alive to see the first Black president in US history is just wonderful. ...more
5

Apr 02, 2013

Audiobook...read by Maya Angelou

I wasn’t a passionate reader in High School- -the handful of books I did read (“Valley of The Dolls”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Franny and Zooey”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and “I Know Why Bird Caged Sings”,), were each books I ‘do’ remember reading that stayed with me all these years.

Always on the lookout for good Audiobooks these days...(fitting nicely with my daily-to-do’s - especially with my duties as house keeper & gardener maintenance of our busy AirBnB Audiobook...read by Maya Angelou

I wasn’t a passionate reader in High School- -the handful of books I did read (“Valley of The Dolls”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Franny and Zooey”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and “I Know Why Bird Caged Sings”,), were each books I ‘do’ remember reading that stayed with me all these years.

Always on the lookout for good Audiobooks these days...(fitting nicely with my daily-to-do’s - especially with my duties as house keeper & gardener maintenance of our busy AirBnB in the back of our house)...
I was inspired when I read a review by *Suzy*... here on Goodreads. She ‘listened’ to the Audiobook. ( great idea I thought - and it sure was)...
“An American Classic”...that once was a book people wanted banned from schools.

Of course we always picked up new things when we read or listen to a book again....
And something that really stood out for me this time around was that Deuteronomy was Maya’s favorite book in the Bible.

I knew that Shakespeare was her favorite author - but I hadn’t remembered about Deuteronomy and why. As a young child Maya believed if people wanted to avoid hell, all they had to do was memorized Deuteronomy and follow its teachings word for word.

When I went through B’nai Mitzvah and studied the Torah - Deuteronomy was my least favorite section. I didn’t like ‘the laws’ and I remember being happy that our daughters both had Genesis, ( dealings with creation), as their portion of focus for their Bat Mitzvah.

But... recently I dived into Deuteronomy.... which was inspired from reading “Bitter Orange”, by Claire Fuller. ( a Priest wanted to leave the church in the story - and I wanted to understand why). I concluded he interpreted Deuteronomy more like a Jew than a Christian.

Back to Maya....
She wasn’t able to avoid hell. A child who saw abandonment, racism,
Social injustice, Discrimination every day as a child in the south, slavery, rape...( at 8 years of age)....she somehow became a legendary survivor ...

“Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware.
And The worst part of my awareness was that I wasn’t aware of what I was aware of”.

This book is timeless...
Insightful - culturally historical... and Maya’s autobiography.

The little happy parts that had me smiling was when Marguerite and Baily were children - reading books - playing as little kids do...
The ‘meals’ that came out of grandmas kitchen were abundant.
I laughed at a breakfast visual of ham - eggs- potatoes -tomatoes - with so much ham fat poured on top of the tomatoes that they turned white.

Our diets have change through history ....
But so much importance in this gem of a book hasn’t.

Thanks, Suzy.., for the Audiobook ‘inspiration’!
Maya’s voice was like having grandma read a bedtime story ...
She could tell a story.
Beautiful prose. ...more
4

Oct 07, 2018

Maya Angelou ends her story of her youth with the birth of her son and that is a fitting ending for with a child comes an adult's responsibilities; although, she was only a teenager when she had him and had only had one very hasty and unsatisfying, almost impersonal, sexual experience to gain that son. It feels a bit abrupt when you are reading it, I had a son, the end.

She had a disjointed upbringing with much movement between households, all over the country, ending up in San Francisco, by way Maya Angelou ends her story of her youth with the birth of her son and that is a fitting ending for with a child comes an adult's responsibilities; although, she was only a teenager when she had him and had only had one very hasty and unsatisfying, almost impersonal, sexual experience to gain that son. It feels a bit abrupt when you are reading it, I had a son, the end.

She had a disjointed upbringing with much movement between households, all over the country, ending up in San Francisco, by way of the deep South and other states along the way. Her mother and father divorced early and her first memories are of her father's mother who raised her. She and her brother, Bailey were moved to St. Louis to her mother's mother's house, then she moved with her mother, brother and a Mr. Freeman to an apartment in St. Louis. Since her mother was out working a lot, Mr. Freeman sexually assaulted her and eventually raped her. She was 8. Little girls and boys left alone with "boyfriends" often suffer this way. In this case she did eventually tell on him and there was a trial and he was found guilty, but only served one day in jail. He was found dead shortly after. Angelou thinks her uncles killed him.

She loses her voice then literally and doesn't speak for years. She says it's because her speaking made a man lose his life, but maybe part of the reason was because she was traumatized and angry and she knew her relatives resented her for becoming a different child afterwards, sullen and sad, and they expected her to get over it and move on. Her silence was the answer to that.

This is a moving memoir and very dark and she does move on, because she has to or give up. She turns to school and the power of words when nudged in that direction by a few gentle angels she meets along the way, teachers and good neighbors who bring light to the darkness. ...more
3

Feb 12, 2017

Read along with a friend.

Enjoyed it but it was another coming of age story which I have read a lot recently. Got a little boring for me at times. Loved the writing but probs wont pick up the next couple of books.

5

Apr 16, 2018

Perfect. A Masterpiece.

Hype Lit Bookclub.

Around the Year In 52 Books: A book inspired by real events.

2018 Popsugar Reading Challenge: A book with an animal in the title.
4

Jun 03, 2017

Honest story, inspiring.

Childhood memories, living in Arkansas with grandmother, later in St. Louis with mother. Sexual abuse when she was eight years old. Brother Bailey, there love and support, hopes for the future. Back to San Francisco with mother, questioning herself about her sexuality. She was the first African-American to be hired to work on the the transportation department at the age of seventeen.
5

May 26, 2014

The first of a series of autobiographies by Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is simultaneously heartrending and inspiring. This beautiful memoir of Ms. Angelou’s years as a child up to the age of seventeen exemplifies the resilience of a strong human spirit. Living with her grandmother, uncle, and brother in the segregated state of Arkansas during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Maya, or Marguerite as she was called, was forced to deal with abandonment, racial prejudices, and grievous The first of a series of autobiographies by Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is simultaneously heartrending and inspiring. This beautiful memoir of Ms. Angelou’s years as a child up to the age of seventeen exemplifies the resilience of a strong human spirit. Living with her grandmother, uncle, and brother in the segregated state of Arkansas during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Maya, or Marguerite as she was called, was forced to deal with abandonment, racial prejudices, and grievous abuse. And yet, Marguerite showed astonishing strength and courage through all this pain and hardship and emerged as a powerful role model for anyone that has suffered from hatred, injustice, or misfortune.

Growing up, Marguerite reflects on what it was like to be a young black girl living during these times, as well as her insecurities regarding her own image. Not uncommon to many young girls, she felt awkward and plain. When describing her excitement over a new dress for church, Marguerite notes “I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world”, and later …”I thought that if she was planning to marry our father she must have been horrified to find herself with a nearly six-foot prospective stepdaughter who was not even pretty.”

I especially enjoyed Maya’s descriptions of her love for books. Reading provided a refuge for little Marguerite, as well as an inspiration for her writing in her adult life. I could easily envision such cozy descriptions as “There was going to be a storm and it was a perfect night for rereading Jane Eyre. Bailey had finished his chores and was already behind the stove with Mark Twain… Pots rattled in the kitchen where Momma was frying corn cakes to go with vegetable soup for supper, and the homey sounds and scents cushioned me as I read of Jane Eyre in the cold English mansion of a colder English gentleman.” Food was a comfort for Marguerite as well and also provided for some very mouthwatering narrative. Humor and sarcasm were not lacking within the pages of Ms. Angelou’s memoir either. Many of these moments seemed to have occurred while attending weekly church services or occasional revival meetings. Marguerite recalls going to church one morning while Reverend Thomas was preaching the words “Great God of Mount Nebo” and Sister Thomas, given to bouts of shouting and jerking when feeling the spirit, approached the Reverend, hit him with her purse, and knocked out his false teeth. “The grinning uppers and lowers lay by my right shoe, looking empty and at the same time appearing to contain all the emptiness in the world.” I could not keep myself from snickering along with Marguerite’s contagious and hysterical laughter.

Despite the books, the food and the humor, Marguerite suffered as well. One could not read this book without your heart going out to her when she experienced rage, loneliness, and physical and emotional pain. The retelling of some of the more horrific incidents in her life is astonishing, graphic, and brutal. But throughout this very personal account of Maya Angelou’s early and formative years, we can see her little triumphs and celebrate with her. Reflecting on her graduation from the eighth grade, Maya says “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” Maya did survive and her numerous achievements point to her victory over adversity and injustice. I look forward to reading the next “chapter” in this inspirational woman’s life story.
...more
5

Apr 04, 2019


In this first in her series of autobiographies, Maya Angelou shares the story of the early years of her life up to the age of seventeen. This memoir is more than just your average story, or even an average memoir because it’s so poignant, so honest and yet shared through such lovely prose that it is hard for me to categorize it as just any one thing.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to her father, Bailey Johnson, who was a naval dietician and her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse, her given
In this first in her series of autobiographies, Maya Angelou shares the story of the early years of her life up to the age of seventeen. This memoir is more than just your average story, or even an average memoir because it’s so poignant, so honest and yet shared through such lovely prose that it is hard for me to categorize it as just any one thing.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to her father, Bailey Johnson, who was a naval dietician and her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, a nurse, her given name was Marguerite Annie Johnson, but her older brother, Bailey Jr., christened her “Maya” in his way of calling her as “my sister.”

Such an incredibly inspiring and courageous woman, this was a joy to read at times, and heartbreaking to read at others, but what really stood out to me was how resilient she was, and yet how distressing it was that she had needed to be that strong.

”When I was three, and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—“To Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.

“Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare—he got off the train the next day in Arizona—and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.”

Abandonment seems to haunt both Maya and Bailey even though there isn’t much said in words, but they seem inured to it, as though they feel it is their lot in life to be left here, sent there. There are other lifelong scars, as well—sexual abuse, the racially divided, impoverished area they live in. Still, she manages to turn the roadblocks of her life into a life lived with inner and outer dignity and grace, inspiring so many along the way.

After the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who died on the fourth of April fifty-one years ago, in 1968, James Baldwin encouraged Maya Angelou to write her personal story. With that, she began this first installment in the story, or stories, of her life.

I listened to this on audio, and also read this on my kindle, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes not. There’s something about her voice, so soothing, I felt her words reach into my heart as though she’s personally planted them there. Such a lovely way to take this journey along with her.

Ninety-one years have passed since the day she was born, were she still alive, she would be celebrating her 91st birthday today. Fortunately, she’s left us with her words, which live on. I raise a glass to Ms. Angelou, in gratitude to the gift of herself, her poetry and her stories, that she shared with all.
...more
5

Apr 12, 2013

The first of Angelou's series of autobiographies and a powerful account of growing up and coming of age in 1930s/40s America. In the background and foreground are racism, violence against women and the problem of identity. It is written with clarity and great force; there is no hiding from what you are reading.
It would be superfluous to sum up the book or outline its contents; it should be read. So I will just add a few thoughts and reflections.
Beacuse of the strong brother/sister relationship, The first of Angelou's series of autobiographies and a powerful account of growing up and coming of age in 1930s/40s America. In the background and foreground are racism, violence against women and the problem of identity. It is written with clarity and great force; there is no hiding from what you are reading.
It would be superfluous to sum up the book or outline its contents; it should be read. So I will just add a few thoughts and reflections.
Beacuse of the strong brother/sister relationship, it has been compared to The Mill on the Floss. That connection I didn't really see; Maggie and Tom Tulliver's relationship is too fractured and damaged by growing up, in a way that Maya and Bailey's was not.
I understand that this is one of those books that has caused controversy when taught in school's in America. I can understand why that is (though I don't approve); the sexual violence is powerful, but Angelou is a bit of iconoclast and takes a swipe at a number of sacred cows. This is especially the case in relation to religion. Part of Angelou's genius is the way she seamlessly combines comedy, painful memories and tragedy.
When reading this I was reminded of Hartley's memorable quote "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there". There are times in relation to racism when I think (and hope) that is the case. I remember my youth and the casual racism that existed, even on TV. I look at today and see improvement and wonder how much of this is on the surface. Maybe I am a little pessimistic. But I do think we have to treat books like this as living breathing things; not as historical documents about a foreign past. ...more
3

Sep 12, 2017

So this is awkward. You start a book that everyone knows so very well. The book is also written on this immensely important topic – rather, several of them. And as you trawl and trawl through it, you only come to realize that it's murdering you with how uninteresting it is to you.


(if the images down load, read this post on my blog)

Suuuure don't feel good. Hey, I've actually written a whole post about how to deal with this situation. So now I'll be following my own advice and still sharing So this is awkward. You start a book that everyone knows so very well. The book is also written on this immensely important topic – rather, several of them. And as you trawl and trawl through it, you only come to realize that it's murdering you with how uninteresting it is to you.


(if the images down load, read this post on my blog)

Suuuure don't feel good. Hey, I've actually written a whole post about how to deal with this situation. So now I'll be following my own advice and still sharing this review with all of you. Hope you won't judge too harshly ????

So basically, let's get down to the facts. What is true:

this is an important book for black people's history and culture
it's a well-known book and it does deserve it and should be well-known
it deals with important subjects, and not only related to race

But then... What is also true:

I did not know it was a memoir?? (FAIL! So #judgeme. I like going into a book without spoiling it for myself ;D)
I... simply did not enjoy it. (Don't hit me please!!!)

I won't argue with the fact that this book deals with a lot of important things. It's not that the it wasn't good – it just wasn't for me. And it's not the topic matter I didn't like – somehow, it was the writing. I know that a lot of people really love Maya Angelou's writing, but for some reason all it did for me was making me distracted. Getting through the book felt like a chore! I was baffled, because usually when it comes to topics like these, I gobble the book up.

So here's the dilemma: it wouldn't be right to rate such an important book low. But then again, it would be awful to rate it high because it was simply work for me to read it.

I AM CONFUZZLED.



So I've decided on three stars, and I will assume it's same for me to say that Maya Angelou's writing is just not for me. Still three, because the subject matter was definitely interesting, and I absolutely love reading about black history, and the inequality, about women's struggles. Maya's life impresses me, who she became, what she did – and I'd love to know what happens next! But... I just don't see myself reading another 5 books, working through them the way I had to plow through this one.

So... is there a movie yet? :D (totally #guilty for asking.)

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4

Oct 08, 2014

4.5 stars
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a personal account told in the voice of a child cleverly reconstructed by an adult narrator. Through the observations of Maya, the child, comes a coming-of-age story - a social record of a young black female growing up in the 1930s. As an historical document 'Caged Bird' covers the bigotry, cruelty, oppression and the constant threat of death that constituted daily life in the South.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed 4.5 stars
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a personal account told in the voice of a child cleverly reconstructed by an adult narrator. Through the observations of Maya, the child, comes a coming-of-age story - a social record of a young black female growing up in the 1930s. As an historical document 'Caged Bird' covers the bigotry, cruelty, oppression and the constant threat of death that constituted daily life in the South.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.*

The autobiography is also a representation that can be read as a feminist observation. The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. Maya was fortunate to have the unbending support from strong, financially independent, no-nonsense women like Momma (her paternal grandmother) who owned land and a grocery business, her mother Vivian who owned a gambling hall, and even her politically well-placed, octoroon maternal grandmother Baxter: all whose convictions not to be dependent on men, provided Maya with the foundation on which to build her self-assurance.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.*

More significantly, after the violent traumatic and pivotal experience of her young life from which she 'loses' her speech, we are reminded that abject struggle often precede success; it is through her strong willed teacher, Mrs. Flowers, that Maya finds confidence, self worth and retrieves from imprisonment her voice. The last part of Maya's journey through adolescence is poignant in the mother/ daughter / infant visual, and although she is still uncertain and insecure, she receives the promise of maturity: Mother whispered, “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.”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.*

Maya Angelou eloquently articulated how the painful struggles and scattered happy experiences of growing up in the South had a significant role in the shaping of the gifted, outspoken, determined, inspirational person she became.

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.*

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in the magnificent six-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou (April 1928 - May 2014): a poet, author, civil rights activist, professor, feminist. A brilliant achievement, highly recommend. My copy is from The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou ( Modern Library) 2012

*verses from the poem 'Caged Bird' by Maya Angelou, are not presented in original sequence.
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4

Oct 06, 2007

In her nonfiction autobiography, Maya Angelou describes her life from her young girl life up to the birth of her first child at age 16. The book drew me in at the very beginning because of the talent Angelou has with language, scenery, and loading the moment with emotion. Another intense draw for me was the fact that it is a nonfiction book. I was constantly thinking I can’t believe she had these experiences.

(SPOILER ALERT)When Maya turned three, she and her brother, Bailey, went to live with In her nonfiction autobiography, Maya Angelou describes her life from her young girl life up to the birth of her first child at age 16. The book drew me in at the very beginning because of the talent Angelou has with language, scenery, and loading the moment with emotion. Another intense draw for me was the fact that it is a nonfiction book. I was constantly thinking I can’t believe she had these experiences.

(SPOILER ALERT)When Maya turned three, she and her brother, Bailey, went to live with her grandmother in Arkansas because of her mother’s divorce. They worked doing strenuous, everyday chores and the grandmother, referred to by the children as “Momma”, instilled in them religion and values. When Maya was eight and Bailey nine, they went to live with their mother in California. They loved knowing who their mother was finally—a beautiful, successful, hardworking woman. Soon, however, Maya was raped by her mother’s live in boyfriend. After being on the witness stand in court, Maya was terrified what would happen to her brother because of the threats that he mentioned about killing Bailey if she spoke to anyone about what happened. Maya didn’t have to worry about this for long, however, because the perpetrator was killed a few nights later. The children were placed in a ping-pong game of having to move to different places and learn to adjust throughout their difficult circumstances. The ping-pong game was relevant to more than moving; their emotions and identities seemed to follow the same pattern.

I loved this book although it has been censored and banned from schools and classrooms quite often. Because of the issues illustrated in the book, I think that this book would be most effective for students who are juniors or seniors in high school or older. Angelou had a difficult life with challenges beyond what I can wrap my mind around, and her blunt honesty tells it how it was. This fact was both hard and captivating. The book should be read by parents before handed down to teens, but if discussed properly, it has the potential for many teaching and learning opportunities. The book discusses graphic and disturbing conflicts in the book including (but not limited to) the following: racial prejudice and violence, sexual abuse, violence, language, prostitution, and an unwanted pregnancy. If discussed properly, the book would provide a great learning experience for both student and teacher as discovery occurs.
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1

Jan 10, 2009

When I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou I knew two things:

1. The author is friends with Oprah and the Clintons.
2. The book is considered a classic.

The book is mostly set in the tiny town of Stamps, Arkansas. I lived much of my childhood within an hour's drive of Stamps so I found that detail very interesting.

The account of life as a Negro (the term Ms. Angelou uses) in rural Arkansas was fascinating. Some of it brought to mind memories of my own childhood (though I am When I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou I knew two things:

1. The author is friends with Oprah and the Clintons.
2. The book is considered a classic.

The book is mostly set in the tiny town of Stamps, Arkansas. I lived much of my childhood within an hour's drive of Stamps so I found that detail very interesting.

The account of life as a Negro (the term Ms. Angelou uses) in rural Arkansas was fascinating. Some of it brought to mind memories of my own childhood (though I am "lily white"). Ms. Angelou's detailed description of food left my mouth watering. Barbecue. Mmm! Fried chicken. Oh, yeah! Where can I get some of that?!

I felt outrage at the shoddy treatment Maya and other Negoes in her community received at the hands of Whites. I sympathized with the fear of lynchings (which I confess I've never learned much about). And I admired their ability to feel proud and strong under oppressive circumstances.

That's what I liked about the book.

I did NOT appreciate the explicit descriptions of Maya's rape at age 8 by her mother's boyfriend. Or those of her 11 year old brother "playing family" in a tent in the backyard. Or of her emotionless experience with a teenage neighbor which leaves Maya pregnant.

These accounts left me feeling sick to my stomach and in need of some way to cleanse my mind. I realize that these acts were horrendous but it seemed that Ms. Angelou went out of her way to make them as vulgar and disgusting as possible, which wasn't necessary to get her point across.

It is outrageous to me is that this book is used in 9th and 10th grade English classrooms. This book is NOT appropriate for teenagers! I won't quote you the explicit details Ms. Angelou uses. Trust me, I've read trashy romance novels that had less detail than this book.

So, because of the explicit portions of the book, I cannot recommend it to anyone. Not adult. Definitely NOT teenager.



Edited October 2014:

About once a year I come to this review and read all of the comments that people have left. The older I get (now 40 yrs old) and the older my kids get (currently 6-11 yrs old) the more I stand by my review.

This book is disturbing. The descriptions of sexual abuse are graphic. The thing about words and images is they burn themselves into our minds. They influence our thinking and our decision-making, often without us realizing it. If they didn't influence us then there would be no purpose for their existence. That's why we must be careful about what we expose ourselves to!

I am saddened that the overwhelming argument in the comments FOR tweens/teens reading this book is that it's no worse than what they are exposed to in their interactions with friends, or what they view on TV/movies. Just because they've already learned about rape doesn't make that knowledge healthy or good for them!

That's called 'desensitization.' When you are exposed to something over and over it eventually loses it's power to influence you; it impacts your emotions and thoughts differently than when you were first exposed. Eventually you lose the sense of shock, horror, and outrage. You become numb or calloused.

I do not want to ever become numb or calloused to the horror of sexual abuse. To do so would dishonor my real life friends who endured sexual abuse. It would belittle the 8 yr old victim of the level two child molester living in my neighborhood (that I learned about today).

The other argument for this book is to educate about the terribleness of sexual abuse. Education of this nature should always have a purpose.

Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge is only good if you are a contestant on a game show.

Reading this book influenced me in two ways: it made me more committed to choose age-appropriate materials for my children AND to empower my children to handle inappropriate situations.

We talk a lot about how private parts of your body are ONLY for you and if anyone asks to see them or touches them you tell your parents. We discuss NOT going somewhere alone with an adult. We also explain that some movies/TV shows are not appropriate for them at their current ages.

We make these choices for our children because an education of this graphic level would have no purpose. It would only horrify and frighten them. Eventually we will educate our children about the proliferation of child pornography, about child sexual abuse, about the sex slave trade that is alive in well in our country and around the world. We won't need to go into graphic detail because the horror of such activities is natural.

After they are educated we will offer them outlets for their outrage. We will provide a list of organizations that fight these atrocities that we can support with our time and money. We will teach them to write letters to government officials on behalf of good legislation.

In other words we will give them the means to DO something with their horror; to act on their education. Which ought to be the purpose of all education.

Okay, so you read the book. You are now 'educated.' What are you going to DO with that education? How has this education changed you, your thinking, motivated your actions? How does this knowledge influence you? ...more
4

Aug 04, 2017

I read this book for the Goodreads' book club Diversity in All Forms. If you would like to participate in the discussion here is the link: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

This book is the first autobiography of Maya Angelou. Maya lived with her grandmother in a small Southern town. She had a lot of tough and terrible experiences at a young age. She was raped at eight years old by her mom's boyfriend and dealt with extreme discrimination. This book was an eye-opener and so honest. I look I read this book for the Goodreads' book club Diversity in All Forms. If you would like to participate in the discussion here is the link: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

This book is the first autobiography of Maya Angelou. Maya lived with her grandmother in a small Southern town. She had a lot of tough and terrible experiences at a young age. She was raped at eight years old by her mom's boyfriend and dealt with extreme discrimination. This book was an eye-opener and so honest. I look forward to reading a book by her every month for many more months.
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4

Sep 03, 2017

What can I even say? Maya Angelou was an incredible woman and this was such a poignant and moving window into the world of the difficulties that come with growing up as a black woman in the south. Maya underwent unspeakable horrors, yet found the strength she needed to overcome each and every one of them. <3 There were a few little essays here and there that I wasn't entirely sure "fit" the memoir as a whole, but for the most part, I was completely enraptured by her words.

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