I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
19th Apr 2012
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969. Since then, it has remained in print, and in 2011, Time magazine included it in their list of the 100 most influential books in English since 1923.
However, Angelou’s literary début also ranks as one of the top 10 books most frequently banned in US school classrooms and libraries. Among the objections cited are Angelou’s frank depiction of racism and sexuality.
Other critics such as Francine Prose dislike her perceived sentimentality, describing the book as ‘manipulative melodrama’. But while some of Angelou’s later work may be an acquired taste, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has undoubtedly retained its place at the forefront of American literature.
Born in 1928, Maya spent her early years in the small, rural town of Stamps, Arkansas, where, alongside her brother Bailey, she was raised by her devout grandmother and crippled uncle. Their community was so marginalised that, Maya admitted, white people did not seem ‘real’ to her.
In her eighth year, Maya moved to St Louis, Missouri where she was brutally raped by her mother’s then-boyfriend. Her suffering was compounded by the trial that followed. She returned with Bailey to Arkansas, a withdrawn child who seldom spoke.
Finally, a family friend encouraged her to read out loud. Despite her humble background, Maya was preciously bright and well-educated. She was familiar with Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, and would listen avidly to ghost stories told by local people.
Angelou writes about Southern life with warmth and humour, from attending revivalist meetings to the triumph of black boxer Joe Louis.
Other episodes, like her brief tenure as a haughty white woman’s maid, a calamitous road trip with her irresponsible father, and bittersweet memories of her high school graduation, are recounted honestly, without vanity.
At twelve, Maya and Bailey left Arkansas to live with their beautiful, charismatic mother in San Francisco. Angelou recalls the wartime period as being the first time she felt that she belonged. She studied drama and became the city’s first black bus conductress.
Angelou attributes her strength of character to having been unconditionally loved by those close to her. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends with the fifteen year-old Maya overcoming her sexual confusion in a casual encounter with a neighbour, which leaves her pregnant.
Typically, Angelou viewed single motherhood not as disgrace, but as a chance for transformation – and after initially concealing her condition, she was ultimately supported by her family.
In the early 1950s, she moved to New York and became a nightclub entertainer. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending such luminaries as James Baldwin and Rosa Guy.
She lived for some years in Ghana before returning to the US, where she recited a poem at the inauguration of President Clinton in 1993.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been adapted for television, starring Oprah Winfrey. Its appeal has endured, as does its capacity to shock.
One of the most widely-read memoirs of all time, it is as absorbing as any work of fiction, and remarkable as much for Angelou’s lyrical style as for its taboo-breaking narrative.