I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou (Adult Autobiography)
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.
Before she became Maya Angelou, she was Marguerite Johnson. When she was three, Marguerite—along with her four-year-old brother, Bailey—was shipped from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas bearing little more than an identification tag with instructions on her wrist. The pair was sent to live with their paternal grandmother and crippled uncle. It was here where young Marguerite would watch the poor Blacks picking cotton in the fields, fall in love with Shakespeare, experience prejudice and hate from people far poorer and less educated than herself, and learn her multiplication tables. In the years following, she would be shuffled back and forth between her mother, father, and grandmother while surviving rape at the age of eight, celebrating her first library card, getting her first job, and experiencing motherhood.
Angelou’s autobiography, which details her life from age 3 to 17, spent two years on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, was nominated for a National Book Award, received the Literarian Award in 2013, and yet remains one of the most banned and/or challenged books in America for its violence, racism, sexuality, childhood rape, and teen pregnancy.
Banning Angelou’s work—set in the 1930s and 40s and told from the lens of a young Black girl—because of its violence and racism is akin to banning a book on war because it’s too bloody. To measure a book set in the past using today’s racial, moral, and ethical standards is unreasonable, unfair, and unrealistic. It’s a false equivalent and no historical work, person, or idea could ever pass such a litmus test. Yes, Angelou’s book contains everything that it was banned for, but chastising these honest and true observations, experiences, and thoughts through removal doesn’t make our schools or society any better for it. How can it?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is gritty, sobering, shocking, and compelling while being uplifting, witty, honest, and hopeful. Angelou shares memories of her first Valentine, her 8th grade graduation, the stability a new stepfather brought to her family, her multiple scholarships to the California Labor School, the summer when she and her father took an unforgettable trip into Mexico, the month she lived in a junkyard, and being the first Black to work on the San Francisco streetcar system. At every turn, Angelou seemed to live her mother’s advice: Life is going to give you just what you put into it. And Angelou gave it her all.
Angelou’s title of her autobiography is a reference to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, which is filled with empathy for a bird longing and crying out for freedom. After reading Angelou’s early years, I felt that the caged bird sings because that was what it was born to do. Angelou is that bird and despite the limitations and bars placed around her, she refused to be a prisoner or a victim. She never stopped at finding a way to make the impossible possible and whenever she felt helpless or weakened, she rose above it all and sang because that was what she was born to do. Through her books and poetry, generations will continue to enjoy Maya Angelou’s song as long as we, as a society, are brave enough to keep the cage door open for all to hear.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com
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