I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou: Book Review

A voice for the voiceless: How Maya Angelou uses her childhood as a microcosm for the devastations of American racism.

Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Book Review
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Book Cover I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou's Autobiography #1
Maya Angelou
Ballantine Books
March 2015

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local "powhitetrash." At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.

Maya Angelou’s autobiography of her childhood isn’t written as a poem, but her prose, subjects, and themes intertwine into a twisted web of unity that paints a poetic picture in the minds of those that consume it.

From the first page of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou grabs your hand and leads you throughout her childhood as a young, black, girl living in the South, furiously pointing at moments and memories that have shaped her into the author she has become. In the 1930s, the United States was madly suffering from racial segregation, and Stamps, Arkansas, the setting for the beginning of the book, was no different. Although this little town is not the location for the entire book, it is the one that Angelou grows up in, the one that shows her how she must live in a world where one race was valued over her own. Stamps act as a microcosm for the greater issues of the country, and Angelou, as a child, has to experience the threat of the KKK and the dangerous disrespect with which white people were treating her family and friends. Her story continues in other parts of the United States like St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, but still, she cannot escape poverty, injustice, and oppression.

As a contrast to the horrors of the outside world, Angelou finds solace in reading. She falls in love with Shakespeare, and her ability to read, understand, and explore literature at such a young age breaks the misconceptions that poor, black people, especially women, were not able to better themselves through education. Angelou was surrounded by these racist stereotypes throughout her entire childhood, but the very act of writing this book, and many other astounding works, proves that these barriers can be taken down. This is where Angelou weaves the metaphor of the caged bird that she introduces in her title. “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is the first line of the third stanza of a poem called “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem is about a bird locked in a cage, and its attempts to escape are met with blood and pain and scars, and yet the bird continues to fight for his freedom. This image is seen throughout Angelou’s young life: her youth was filled with the unjust confinements of racism, sexism, abuse, and destitution, but she continues to sing, to fight, to live, to write.

Unfortunately, the painful memories of Angelou’s past still accompany the lives of so many Americans today. Stories like Angelou’s, however, give a voice to the voiceless, and perhaps one day, the caged bird will be able to sing without bars, blood, or scars.

Mallory Miller
the authorMallory Miller
Book Contributor
Mallory is currently enrolled at the University of North Texas, and is getting a degree in English Literature with a minor in Marketing. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing and writing after she graduates, and would love to start her own independent publishing company one day. When she isn’t reading for fun, she’s reading for school (which can be fun as well, of course!). She is also a lover of cats, coffee, and conversation. Favorite Books: Middlemarch by George Eliot, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser