I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Review and Tribute to Maya Angelou

Margueritte Ann Johnson, known as Maya Angelou, passed away on May 28th, 2014 and left a life and a legacy that can only be described as awe-inspiring. She was the author of more than seven autobiographies and books of essays and poetry, a leader in the civil rights movement, an actress and a dancer with an illustrious career in over fifty films and plays, a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and an important icon in American history.  

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven autobiographies Maya Angelou wrote during her lifetime, and remains one of her most critically acclaimed works. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details her life from age three to age sixteen, and chronicles her experiences in Stamps, Arkansas and San Francisco, California as she attempts to understand racism, sexuality, self-identity, and education.

In critiquing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I realize how small I feel at attempting to understand her memoir, in the same way an amateur painter might feel when asked to critique one of Picasso’s paintings. I decided to read and review I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a small tribute to her and, while I certainly don’t expect my words to carry as much depth and weight as many other analysts and critics of Maya Angelou’s life, I hoped to at least attempt to understand a small part of such an iconic figure, to gain insight from such a powerful voice in American literature.

Though I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reveals a relatively small part of Angelou’s life, it presents the ideas and struggles that would follow her for most of her life. Rather than acting as an adult reminiscing on childhood and adolescence, her words in this book hold the voice of the age she recounts. The reader feels as if they are reading and understanding with the mind of a child or teenager; the ideas and criticisms feel fresh and believable.

There is an abundance of humor and wit throughout the book. Maya Angelou’s experiences with religion during her childhood and her close relationship with her brother Bailey are both funny and deep. I especially loved Maya’s experience with her racist boss when she attempts to shorten Maya’s name from Margueritte to Mary, and Maya’s strong willed retaliation.

This incredible woman's memoir highlights the role that hope plays in her life, particularly in dealing with racism. Her character shines through the pages when she explains her love of books, her grandmother’s example in dealing with racists through grace and strength of character, and the difficulty she faces in growing up an African American woman. Both the racism she encounters in Stamps, Arkansas in the treatment of her grandmother by insolent white children to the speech a made by one of the speakers at her ninth grade graduation reminding her classmates of the lack of opportunities they would face in life highlight the outward social oppression African Americans suffered as well as the psychological oppression they experienced through the idea of African American inferiority. Yet the small triumphs she witnessed, from the way her classmates were able to recover a sense of purpose after the speech to Maya’s accomplishment in becoming San Francisco’s first black street car driver enabled her to develop mechanisms to stand against racism and establish a stronger sense of self identity.

From her hysterical recollections of church as a child to encounters with racism as a young adult to her role as a teen mother, Maya's experiences are able to present the complexity and humanity in the process of achieving greatness. Her words allowed me to recognize how hope is born and sustained amidst social circumstances that constantly encourage failure. 

What I found in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a look at the humanity and relatability present in achieving greatness. Maya Angelou’s memoir is able to help readers understand that greatness does not consist in losing either our humanity or our tendency towards failure, but rather embracing both these qualities.

 

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