I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Book Review

cagedbird In case you missed August's issue of Curiouser Magazine, you can check it out here.

If you were to teach a class on book themes, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would be the perfect example. Just a few of the themes in this coming-of-age autobiography are racism, displacement, resistance, influence of childhood, family ties, religion, and abandonment. The late Maya Angelou captured all of these themes while breaking the hearts of her readers—yet still managing to make them chuckle.

Maya was three years old when her parents sent her and her brother, Bailey, off to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother, affectionately called Momma. A strong influence in her grandchildren’s lives, Annie Henderson was a God-fearing woman who owned the Store—a grocery store in the middle of a black community during the Depression. Although Momma was beautiful on the inside and outside, Maya found her grandmother’s ways of dealing with racism confusing and upsetting.

An appalling example was when Maya had a terrible cavity, so Momma took her to the nearest dentist, a white man who had borrowed money from her once. The dentist’s disturbing reply was, “I would rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than into that girl’s black mouth.” Maya was so upset by this that when Momma went to talk to the dentist alone, she imagined that Momma transformed into a superhero, rightfully exiling the dentist for all eternity.

While reading about Maya’s life—a life of prejudice, rape, and displacement—the reader still finds time to laugh with her during the good times. The most memorable chapter was when Bailey and Maya were sitting in church when a charismatic woman, Sister Monroe, “got the spirit and started shouting, throwing her arms around and jerking her body.”

She wound up standing by the pulpit in front of the preacher, screaming, “Preach it! I say, preach it!” The following week, both Bailey and Maya could tell the same incident was about to occur all over again, so Bailey leaned in to his sister and whispered, “I say, preach it!” Alas, Maya could not contain her giggles and fell onto the floor in the middle of church laughing, peeing, and crying.

“Laughter so easily turns to hysteria for imaginative children. I felt for weeks after that I had been very, very sick, and until I completely recovered my strength I stood on laughter’s cliff and any funny thing could hurl me off to my death far below.”

Although Maya spent many years as an inferior, displaced girl, she grew up into an outspoken, confident woman that I hope woman will mirror today.