I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)

If I hadn’t read the back cover, I wouldn’t have realized this book is autobiographical. She writes with such humor and feeling that you forget these things really happened to her. You want to root for her, even – or maybe especially – when life makes it seem like she’s a bird trapped in a cage with no way to escape.

Title – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Author – Maya Angelou

Page count – 290

Rating – Borrow, although I bought mine at a used book store and will probably keep it because I need to read it at least one more time.

CW: rape/sexual assault. If reading a rape scene could trigger flashbacks for you, make sure you’re in the right mental space before reading this book.

Maya is actually a nickname that was given to a young Marguerite Johnson. This story follows Marguerite from her early years growing up in rural Arkansas with her year-older brother, grandma, and uncle through her movements as a teenager in St. Louis and southern California. It starts in the 1930s so we see the effects of the Great Depression and racial segregation as it existed in the pre-Civil Rights era of the Deep South. As she gets older, Maya struggles to find her place in this world while dealing with familial instability and the inevitability of growing up too fast.

This is one of those books where I wasn’t sure how to feel after I finished. It’s not exactly that it felt incomplete, although this is a sort of Part One of an autobiographical series. The author draws you in to really feel for this character (“character” b/c it’s actually the author), but somehow it still feels like I’m on the other side of a glass barrier. I know what’s going on in the story, but I still don’t fully understand.

Which is why I need to read it again.

Here’s a passage I marked that seems to encompass Marguerite’s feelings as a child:

“Looking through the years, I marvel that Saturday (chore day) was my favorite day in the week. What pleasures could have been squeezed between the fan folds of unending tasks? Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.” (p. 113)

Another line that seems very wise to me:

“I reasoned that I had given up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable than the loss.” (p. 257)


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