This book is a powerful and haunting book. This is the kind of book that stays with you once you finish reading it. There are lots of moments in this book that you will think about even days after finishing it.
Written by Maya Angelou, one of the world’s most prominent African American, a celebrated poet and writer, the novel is her autobiography that covers her life from the age of three through to seventeen. (For those who are further interested, she has six more autobiographical books).
Growing up in the city of Stamps in Arkansas, Maya- her real name is Marguerite- faced a lot of racism and prejudice from the white people in her town. Even though her grandmother had a well to do store where Maya and her brother worked, she still faced a lot of harrassment and hatred from the white folks.
Here is a short summary of what she endured:
- Maya and her brother Bailey, have been abandoned by their parents. Abandonment is a running theme in her life, and she and Bailey are often labelled as “luggage.”
- Maya feels the insult from one of the white woman who starts to call Maya by her new name Mary, thereby stripping Maya of her heritage.
- Even though her grandmother Momma is wealthy, she faces harrassment and ridicule
- The white dentist refuses to look after Maya’s rotting teeth
- Maya’s father suddenly turns up and takes the kids away from Stamps, and leaves them with their mothers in Missouri
- at the age of eight, Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend
- Even though the rapist is declared guilty in court, he is murdered and Maya becomes a recluse
- Maya and Bailey move back to Stamps, but she becomes almost mute
- One black woman, Bertha, encourages Maya to express herself through books and literature. Maya is able to come out of her shell.
- Maya and Bailey are sent to their mother in San Francisco to attend high school- Maya studies dance and drama
- Maya, still in high school, has some intense experiences as she vists her father in Southern California, and even ends up driving the car back home, with her father being drunk
- Maya’s questions her sexuality as she feels she’s a lesbian, due to her lack of knowledge, and is relieved to know she isn’t
- Maya is pregnant, and Bailey helps her hide her pregnancy till her she graduates from high school.
- She gives birth to her child.
To read of all of this is a harrowing experience. To imagine that this was all happening in 1969 in the United States evokes feelings of horror and disgust, to see how deep rooted racism was at the time.
Maya, throughout her distraught experiences, displays dignity and strength. She doesn’t retaliate, she doesn’t fight back, she doesn’t stoop down low, but instead, holds her head high. Through her love of literature and books, she shows how one can deal with racism and trauma. It’s not easy, but she does it.
It’s extremely sad and distressing to read about what’s happening in the US today in 2020. Black people are still targeted today. The insults and racism is still strong in the US. At times, while reading Maya’s experiences, I began to feel like how much of that racism still exists today. Nothing much has changed from 1969 to 2020.
The culture of racism is deep rooted. The white man feels superior and makes the black man feels inferior. Even though US had a black president, things somehow seem to have taken a turn for the worse under Preseident Trump.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a insightful autobiography, and with grace and poise, Maya shows us how one can overcome racism and trauma through the resilience and character. This books becomes essential reading to understand and empathise with the black community and the racism they endure. If anything, it will take you right into the mindset of a young black child and help you see all what she had to endure.
Powerful, relevant, impactful and at times moving, it’s no surprise that this book is widely loved world over and is often quoted by many influential people as one of their favorite books ever.