I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Random House, 1969

Genre: Classics

It took me a long time to read this book. Not because it was boring or inferior, but because it was so incredibly good. I kept pausing to re-read passages and then to read them out loud to my husband, sometimes  to myself. 

It’s a heart wrenching true story of things that should never happen to a child. But it’s also a true story of a shameful part of our American culture and history. This is Ms. Angelou’s autobiography of her life from age three through sixteen.  

I read this book as a part of the Classics Bookclub at 5 Minutes For Books. I’m going to treat this “review” as if I am at a face-to-face bookclub and present the questions and my answers. I promise I won’t talk as much I might if this were a real face-to-face. Here are the questions:

  1. This autobiography was written in 1969, before the “personal memoir” era was born. Is there a difference between these two genres of books? To me this autobiography seems more like a novel. She tells the story of her experience as if to educate the reader about what it was like to be black and to be female during the time period. It’s not exactly the traditional autobiography with chronological tales with dates, etc. On the other hand I think of memoirs as something lighter, written by celebrities.  
  2. Assuming that you did not grow up as an African American in the segregated South, do you have more understanding of that time period and how it affected those who lived it? Yes, the author’s details of her daily life, experiences and the people she knew made me feel as if I were there with her. Most of her early life was so horrific that it is to her credit that she survived. What hurt the most was how the treatment of blacks as less than human was designed to keep them in a subservient place in society. Even children understood this and it served to rob them of any hope that their futures would be better. 
  3. In spite of the differences between her life and yours, what common themes resonated with you? I felt as if we had gone to the same church. I recall having to sit on the front row and wanting to laugh hysterically but then being shocked by the behavior of some of the adults. Another common thread was the expectation of the behavior of children and how we looked to others which was a reflection on our parents and our home.
  4. How do you think Maya was shaped by each home she lived in while she was growing up? We don’t know about her home prior to age 3. From age 3 to 13 she learned basic behavior and her place in the world from her grandmother. Although very strict and quick to administer corporal punishment, her grandmother, called Momma, understood her “sensitive nature” and her need for literature and the need to escape within the books. I do not admire her mother’s role, or non-role, in her life. She was there at the beginning and got her through high school, but only because she was forced to take the children. Maya’s grandmother was the molding force in her life.
  5.  Which female in Maya’s life do you think had the most influence (good or bad) over her? Explain your response. There’s no denying the overall influence of “Momma” on Ms. Angelou’s life. But in looking at the direction her life took, I think a lot of credit should go to Mrs. Flowers. After Maya’s horrible experience in St. Louis, Mrs. Flowers’ positive intervention was just what she needed. As Ms. Angelou said, “I was liked and what a difference it made.” (page 85) Mrs. Flowers opened up new possibilities that stayed with her for life.
  6. After reading the book do you understand “why the caged bird sings”? Yes, the cage is a metaphor for how the effects of racism kept her from experiencing all that white children took for granted. Maya was the bird singing because she finally saw hope fror the future. As a little girl she wanted to become white but as she came of age she was proud to be black. She saw that it was possible to help change America for her own and future children.

My Summary: I’m not mildly recommending this book. I’m telling you that you really must read it. Read it for the beautiful prose and poetry of it, for the little-known black history of it, or for the fact that Maya Angelou is one our living icons. But most important, read it for inspiration. If you think life is tough now, read this book.  This woman’s childhood should have made her angry, bitter and hateful. Instead she gives us books and poetry that makes the world shine and makes us feel as if “a bright sun spoke to our souls”. (page 156) Yes, this book is that good.

For what other Classic Bookcluh members thought of this book, go here.