Book Review I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Why I picked this book?

I Know Why Caged Bird Sings, this book was coming as a suggestion to me for quite some time. Although, I have heard a lot about Maya Angelou and she was referenced in some books that I have read in the past, but I haven’t read any of her work yet. So I decided to read some of her work and thought why not start with her autobiography and here I am after reading the first part of her autobiography.

The book

I Know Why Caged Bird Sings is the first part of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, which covers her childhood days with her brother and grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas and with her mother in California. She used to live in California and once their parents decided to separate, she along with her brother were sent to her grandmother, who use to run a grocery store in Stamps. Later, she and her brother again moved to California to stay with her mother for studies. This book covers her story from childhood till she is seventeen years old.

The books take you on a journey into the childhood and lived experience of the author. From the city life to a quiet and slow town life of Stamps. She narrated the various lessons she learned from her grandmother, from the school and her school friends and otherwise mundane looking day to day activities in great details There are many vignettes created by the author which captures the life in the small black neighborhood of that time, their lives, and the challenges they face daily. Like the cotton pickers –

The sound of the empty cotton sacks dragging over the floor and the murmurs of waking people were sliced by the cash register as we rang up the five-cent sales.

If the morning sounds and smells were touched with the supernatural, the late afternoon had all the features of the normal Arkansas life. In the dying sunlight the people dragged, rather than their empty cotton sacks.

Brought back to the Store, the pickers would step out of the backs of trucks and fold down, dirt-disappointed, to the ground. No matter how much they had picked’ it wasn’t enough. Their wages wouldn’t even get them out of debt to my grandmother, not to mention the staggering bill that waited on them at the white commissary downtown.

From her childhood days Maya was an avid reader and she met someone in her town, who encouraged her to read. Mrs. Bertha Flowers told Maya, Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse the with the shades of deeper meaning.” Looking at how powerful is her writing, it seems she took the advice seriously. There are many instances where you are amazed by how beautifully and effectively, she has conveyed her thoughts.

There are many pearls of wisdom in the book, as per Mrs. Flowers with “shades of deeper meaning”. I just want to share two of them to let the readers know what we have in the book along with the author’s childhood story. One from Mrs. Flowers, when she tells nine or ten year old Maya.

She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.

There is one from Maya’s mother, when she told her-

See, you don’t have to think about doing right thing. If you are for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.

As you read along you will get a glimpse of the society of that time, the status and condition of black people in the society. Her journey from California to Stamps and then again to California. Impact of her mother on her life, the abuse she has faced at the age of eight by her mother’s lovers and how it impacted her. The first love letter she got on Valentine back in Stamps, the first job that she got at the age of sixteen and her becoming a mother just after completing the school at the age of seventeen.

I Know Why Caged Birds Sings is a well written, well structured wonderful read capturing the world of thirties and forties along with her days and years of childhood in a small town and a big city. Sharing various aspects of early life and childhood, which is sad and hopeful at the same time. Looking forward to read the next past of her autobiography.

About the Author

Dr Maya Angelou was one of the world’s most important writers and activists. Born 4 April 1928, she lived and chronicled an extraordinary life: rising from poverty, violence and racism, she became a renowned author, poet, playwright, civil rights’ activist – working with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – and memoirist. She wrote and performed a poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, for President Clinton on his inauguration; she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and was honoured by more than seventy universities throughout the world.

She first thrilled the world with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This was followed by six volumes of autobiography, the seventh and final volume, Mom & Me & Mom, published in 2013. She wrote three collections of essays; many volumes of poetry, including His Day is Done, a tribute to Nelson Mandela; and two cookbooks. She had a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University of North Carolina. Dr Angelou died on 28 May 2014.

Our Verdict

If you have read Maya Angelou, then you surely need to read this one and all other parts of her autobiography. If you haven’t read, then start with I Know Why Caged Bird Sings.

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