Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

iknowwhythecagedbirdsingsRead for: July/August Group Selection for FABClub

Rating: 4/5

So, I am totally guilty of ignoring some of the world’s leading authors until they die a very public death, prompting rediscovery and mass consumption of their body of work posthumously. I am so guilty of this! And I’m very sorry. Maya Angelou passed away a few months ago and immediately all of my book clubs were reading this book. I’m sad that it took her dying for me to finally read this classic, but I am thankful that I did.

What can I say about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? It’s been described as autobiographical fiction because it is a memoir of Maya’s youth in Stamps, Arkansas, but it utilizes many techniques common in the fiction genre. It is also incredibly lyrical and poetic. The title is a line from an incredible poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet and author from the late 19th century.

Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
 

It was a really indescribable reading experience to be submerged in such beautiful words, and to keep remembering that she is telling her story, and not a fictional one. Maya experienced trauma and racism as a child growing up in the south, and how she matured into an intelligent, strong and dignified woman through these experiences. The reference to being a slave in a cage made in the title speak volumes about this, and it’s a theme she repeats often throughout her writing. I really enjoyed the story, and didn’t want it to end. Towards the end I felt like things were getting a bit rushed as she speaks about her journey into motherhood, before it ends fairly abruptly after the birth of her child. But I suppose I can’t fault her for finding a note to end on, we all know it couldn’t go on forever.

There are some chapters that were very hard to read, and some that were uplifting and even funny (I adored the scene she imagines of her Grandma going back into the dentist’s office and crushing him like a superhero). The world has truly suffered a loss with Maya’s passing.

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