I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Written by: Maya Angelou
Published By: Bantam Books by arrangement with Random House, Inc.
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Readers of Maya Angelou’s poetry know her for her strength of conviction, her anger, her pride, her pain, her loss and her enlightenment. Anyone who has read Phenomenal Woman, Still I Rise or Touched by an Angel can’t help but wonder what inspired this woman to write such beautiful prose. A celebrated author of poetry, books, and screenplays, gifted orator, recipient of numerous honorary degrees, professor, Maya Angelou has reached heights that some can only hope to aspire to. But there was once a time when hope was a far and fleeting concept. The novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, gives readers a glimpse into the early life of Maya Angelou and offers insight as to the beginnings of her talents and the lessons learned that have brought her to this stage in her life.
The reader is introduced to Maya at the early age of three when she and her brother are placed on a train to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their father’s mother. Although introduced to the hardships that went along with being an African American in Arkansas at that time, the reader is also instilled with the bond between members of the community and the strength taught to Maya Angelou by her grandmother, a hard working, religious woman who believed in her grandchildren. Hardships are mingled with happiness throughout this tale – tears mingled with laughter – as we read about the harsh reality of a father who has no real use for his children, a mother who seems more interested in caring for herself and her social life than her own children, and a grandmother who shows love for her grandchildren with a sternness that can be confused for anger. We become angry when Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend and sad at the guilt that plagues young Maya as the victim of such a heinous crime. We stand outraged at the commencement speech given at Maya’s graduation by a white school official who implies that those of “color” can never aspire to be anything more than maids, cotton pickers or basketball players. We applaud her gumption as she strives to prove all the nay-sayers wrong by becoming “the first Negro on the San Francisco street cars.”
Maya Angelou’s tale of her early childhood is testimony to her talent with the written word. Her attention to detail is remarkable and allows the reader to actually picture events in her life as they take place in the book. Maya Angelou is so talented as to make friends of those who read her novel, causing them to root for her in her attempts at achievement and rail at her adversaries. It is with great sadness that one comes to the end of the novel, which ends quite abruptly and unexpectedly. Fortunately, this is but one of a five part series written by Maya Angelou about her life and thus, the reader can find solace in the fact that there is more incredible storytelling to absorb.
This book is not just recommended reading for those interested in the life and times of Maya Angelou. Anyone who has ever needed a reason to have faith, to keep on with their struggles though there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, needs to read this book. Everything that Maya Angelou has been through in her life has added strength and resolve to her character that has seen her through difficult and trying times and helped her to survive. Her writings prove that life is not always a struggle and that there is an occasional silver lining to be seen. This book is an inspiration to all who have been through trying times – to all those who despair, the message: life can be worthwhile so long as you make an effort to live it.