I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven autobiographies about Maya Angelou’s (1928 – 2014) life of extraordinary talent and extreme hardships. Maya was called Marguerite (“Maya” was a nickname from her beloved brother).
Angelou’s memories aren’t an overflowing vessel waiting to be freed and settled. It took courage and strength to claim the “lost years.” Her brother and her mother are central to the book and to her formation of self. In the Acknowledgements, Angelou writes “I thank my mother, Vivian Baxter, and my brother, Bailey Johnson, who encouraged me to remember.”
Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them.
Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. 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.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is about the childhood of a black girl growing up in Arkansas during the Depression.
People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.
A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things.’
This book is also the very pressing story of influences. Those who hurt, loved, noticed, and formed Maya Angelou.
Influences like Shakespeare, who wrote “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” and Momma (Angelou’s grandmother), whose rigid determination formed the backbone of Angelou’s Depression Era life.1
The most painful ordeal Angelou endures is when, aged eight, she is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The experience, though described carefully and compassionately by the adult Angelou, defies understanding. The strong presence of this young child in the narrative, the palpable bewilderment of pain—and then the ravaging guilt that caused Angelou to stop speaking when her naming of the incident caused (she believed) the man’s death—it is a tremendously powerful expression.
I had to stop talking. I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still—in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds.
Angelou did not speak again until she returned to Arkansas and befriended a colleague of her grandmother’s. This Mrs. Flowers, of whom Angelou remembered “It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself,” bestowed on the broken child the gift of kindness:
‘Now no one is going to make you talk—possible no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.’ That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
‘Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.’
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud.
After five years of muteness, Maya regained speech. She credits Mrs. Flowers’ simple acts of kindness: singling out the young, vulnerable girl for tea and cookies and reading aloud her favorite copy of A Tale of Two Cities.
Place, location, and landscape have so much importance in Angelou’s narratives, not only I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but also each of her subsequent books. The place of this first book is Stamps, Arkansas: a poor Southern town with fuming racial tensions and fear between blacks and whites, and yet, in the close community of her family, a place which offered Angelou the landscape of childhood, a home of force.
I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.
Against these forces, and those more sinister, Angelou becomes deeply self-aware and world-aware.
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 didn’t know what I was aware of.
Angelou struggles to position her intelligence and power in a world comfortable—even celebratory—with its bigotry.
Read in tandem with Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter written at the end of a fully lived life, powerful because we imagine it is this young Marguerite, this young caged bird, to whom Angelou directs her wisdom.