"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou

Pros: Writing style, difficult topics, engaging voice, honesty
Cons: None
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 11/20/2000

One of the few writing classes I’ve taken that I truly enjoyed was a memoir course (the teacher was fantastic). Any time a new subject came up, the teacher would hand out photocopies of a page or two each from various writers’ memoirs that demonstrated the topic she was talking about. Every single time, it seemed, there was something by author Maya Angelou in that stack, and her words enthralled me.

And There I Was…

I was bored one day and looking around Barnes & Noble’s website. (I spend far too much time there.) I discovered the list of banned books, on sale. It turned out that Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was banned at schools because it has a very frank account of sexual abuse from her childhood in it. So I bought a copy. I’d been wanting to see more of her work after that class.

You have to understand that I haven’t had nearly as much time as I’d like to read lately – too many writing contracts. This isn’t a bad thing. But it makes it all the more significant that once I sat down to read this book, I didn’t stop.

The Caged Bird

Maya Angelou tells us of her childhood growing up black in the South. She fills us in on each triumphant and each humiliating detail. She shows us her beauties, and her uglinesses. That takes an incredible amount of courage. While memoir isn’t my medium of choice I’ve taken two memoir classes now, and I’ve seen how tough it is for writers to show their mistakes and their embarrassments. I’ve felt how hard it is for us to show the good in the people we hate. Maya does both with amazing candor and honesty.

There are anecdotes in here that made me cringe. I could feel myself in her place, wanting to curl up and die. I must have shed tears at least once a chapter; my fiancee had to ask me if I was okay every time I put the book down to blow my nose.

There was the sexual abuse. I think her frankness is an asset, not something to be hidden and banned. I think more people might be outraged at the things like this that happen if they had to see it clearly rather than shuffling it under a rug.

Then there was the racism. I can’t pretend to understand what it was like for her, but I can at least say that I felt it as I read it, that she did the most amazing job of conveying the hurts, the humiliations, the outrage, the triumphs. This is her gift: to make people who couldn’t possibly understand, feel.

Maya’s Magic

Maya Angelou has the most magical way of writing. I’m not sure I can describe it…I feel in some ways inadequate to the writing of this review. She has ways of describing things that no one else could ever come up with. She can make you see and hear what she saw and heard. Her images are spread out in bright bold colors and contrasts; her turns of phrase are unexpected and delightful, frightening, awe-inspiring.

Mother’s beauty made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest.

If I could have a hundredth of her writing ability, I should be content for the rest of my life.

So this is, unashamedly, an urge to read this book, or any other by this amazing and fantastic author. It will be painful, yes. It will hurt. You’ll hide your eyes in shame and you’ll cry. But at the end of it all, you’ll be able to hold your head high, knowing that you’ve felt, that you’ve known, and maybe, if you’re lucky, that you’ve even understood.

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