Posted on | February 9, 2010 | 29 Comments
I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, simply for the title, which is one of the most beautiful titles I’ve ever come across. So, I finally picked it up, and it’s probably one of the most beautiful autobiographies I’ve ever read. On reading the blurb, I thought it would be similar to the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple. While both books have a prominent thread of racism running through, the similarities end there.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the coming-of-age story of Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson, set in Stamps (Arkansas), St. Louis and San Francisco. Initially, she lives in Stamps with her brother, Bailey, her grandmother who she calls Momma, and her Uncle Willie. Momma, a no-nonsense unemotional religious Christian, owns the only store around, and is respected and well-liked by all – whites and blacks. While their parents are in California (doing goodness knows what), Momma brings the two children up, with proper morals and values. In fact, when Maya uses the phrase “by the way” passingly, she is admonished for using the Lord’s name in vain. And she cannot admit to liking Shakespeare, as he was white.
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.
When Maya was eight, she went to live with her mother at St. Louis, and was subsequently raped by her mother’s then boyfriend. The boyfriend was later killed by her uncles, after the court sentenced him to just about a year in prison, but he was released immediately. This incident casted a shadow over the next few years of her youth, as she was convinced that she had blood on her hands.
However, this wasn’t the only thing that cast a shadow in her life: there was the white dentist who Momma had lent money to during the Depression, but when Maya needed her teeth looked at, the dentist refused saying he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. When she graduated eighth grade, and thought she had the whole world in her hands, a speech given by one of the “visitors” served a reminder that the students having ambitions higher than being maids, farmers, handymen and washerwomen were being farcical and presumptuous.
There was the world of the “whitefolk” and the “powhitefolk,” both of which were prejudiced against the blacks, despite some of the powhitefolk not having as much as some of the blacks did. There was the emotional upheaval when their father picked them up from Stamps to take them to St. Louis. And of course, the confusion when they returned to Stamps, back to the safe and righteous Momma.
Yet, this book isn’t written from the point of view of a “victim” – instead, it’ a young girl willing to achieve what she wants against all odds, and her profound insights into the world she lives in – the only world she knows. She talks openly about how her brother is her world, her admiration for one of Momma’s customers, the conflicting feelings on meeting her mother – a stranger – again. There’s no beating around the bush, no meanderings – just calling a spade a spade. It’s innocent and beautifully written. Each chapter can be read as a stand alone story, which, when put together forms a thought-provoking read.
People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.
I absolutely loved this book, and can’t recommend it highly enough. This book is the first of the six autobiographies she wrote, and I’ll try picking up the next in the volume, as the ending of the first book does make you wonder about how it all ties in, eventually.