Title: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou
Status: In 1994, this book was challenged in several high schools. The challenges were in Iowa, Texas, Colorado and Georgia. The main complaint against it was that it provided “encouragement to partake in premarital sex, homosexuality, and use profanity. It was also criticized as “a lurid tale of sexual perversion.”
The Plot: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing is an autobiography of Maya Angelou. It begins when Angelou is a small child in the 1930’s South and ends with her high school graduation and the birth of her son. As young children of divorced parents, Maya and her brother Bailey are moved to their grandmother’s home in rural Arkansas. Maya sees herself as an ugly unwanted child. She and her brother experience a deep-seated racism first hand, and live in fear of lynch mobs. At the age of 8 Maya and her brother are moved again. This time, they are moved to St. Louis to live with their mother. One of her mother’s live in boyfriends (Mr. Freeman) molests and then finally rapes her. They go to court and shortly afterwards, Mr. Freeman is violently murdered. Maya becomes mute. She believes that both the sexual assault and the murder of Mr. Freeman are her fault. She essentially believes she has become a mouthpiece for the devil.
After Maya and Bailey are returned to their grandmother, Maya slowly regains her voice- with the help of a kind educated woman named Bertha Flowers. Later, she and her brother are moved again- this time to California. She spends a summer with her father and after her father’s girlfriend cuts her in a fight, she runs away. She lives for a month in a junkyard with a group of homeless teenagers. She returns to her mother in San Francisco and at the age of 15 becomes the city’s first black streetcar conductor. By sixteen, she is pregnant. She hides her pregnancy for 8 months in order to graduate high school. The book ends with her growing confidence as a mother.
I was 14 years old the first time I read this book. At the time, I was really into Dickens and had just discovered Marlowe. My English teacher thought I might enjoy reading something that was more grounded in the 20th century. So, she recommended it for me.
I remember being hypnotized by it. I couldn’t get over how separate she was from the telling of her own story. She was so matter of fact about everything. When she describes how she felt after her rape and the subsequent murder of the rapist, I thought, “How can she be so matter of fact?” By the end, I wasn’t sure if I liked the book or not. I felt as if a blindfold had been ripped from my eyes. I saw just how much bigger and harder the world was than I previously thought.
So, when I decided to do this book challenge, it was immediately added to my list. I just wasn’t sure how I would feel about it when I got to the end. I’ve read all 5 volumes of her autobiography. So, re-reading I Know Why Caged Bird Sings was akin to coming full circle.
The book was still as spellbinding as it had been when I was 14. But there was a difference. When I was younger everything that she’d gone through was so shocking and disturbing. That, coupled with her detached tone throughout, was like a spray of cold water in the face. The re-read left me spellbound with the beauty of it and the strength of Maya herself. Her trials are still quite shocking when you consider her age, and maybe time and the evening news has hardened me to violence, but the focus seemed different for me.
At 14 my focus was on all of the horrible things that happened to this young and innocent girl. At 30 my focus is on her strength and the uplifting nature of her spirit.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography that reads like a novel. The prose is poetic and will grab you from the first sentence. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a beautiful coming of age book. The way Maya Angelou unflinchingly reveals herself will reverberate within you long after you’ve put the book down.