I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven autobiographies about a 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 mother encouraged her to remember. They are central to the book and her formation of self.
This book is the story of influences, of those who loved her, noticed her and enabled her. Including 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.
It is the etching of a Southern town – Stamps, Arkansas – drawn by someone who saw it as 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 in its bigotry.
Read in tandem with Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter. The latter, written at the end of a fully-lived life, becomes even more powerful as we imagine it is this young Marguerite, this young caged bird, to whom Angelou directs her wisdom.