Maya Angelou was a well-known activist throughout the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. She wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way of dealing with his death and to highlight her own personal struggles as an African-American woman. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first book in a five part autobiography and is considered a milestone for African-American writing. It details Maya Angelou's troublesome childhood in the segregated south during the 1930's.
One of the things that makes Maya Angelou's childhood particularly interesting is that she experienced two different worlds growing up. One living with her grandmother in a segregated community in Stamps, Arkansas, where she remembered "never believing that whites were really real" and a second after she turned 13, when Maya's lived with her mother in San Francisco, a place that quickly became "California's Harlem" when WWI began and the majority of the Asian community left the area and African Americans began to dominate. While the people who surrounded Maya had a great impact on her life, these two places also proved to be influential and ultimately had a great effect on her - changing the way she viewed the world and viewed herself.
In San Francisco, for the first time, I perceived myself as part of something. Not that I identified with the newcomers, nor with the rare Black descendants of native San Franciscans, nor with the whites or even the Asians, but rather with the times and the city.
What I related to the most in Angelou's story was her passion for literature and it's capacity to heal and inspire. Throughout her childhood, Maya Angelou experienced traumatic events that no child should have to endure. However, she coped with her feelings of displacement and uncertainty through literature. Ultimately her reading helped to shape the strong, secure woman she grew to be.
Even though this novel was published in 1969, Angelou's prose feels fresh, employing anecdotes that made me frown in sadness and laugh out loud.
Ever since [my brother and I] read The Fall of the House of Usher we had made a pact that neither of us would allow the other to be buried unless 'absolutely, positively sure' (his favorite phrase) that the person was dead. I also had to swear that when his soul was sleeping I would never try to wake it, for the shock might make it go to sleep forever.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a story of a young girls evolution of her own identity as an African-American woman
The fact than an adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even billigerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.
It's a book about persistence, perseverance and tolerance. While some instances were hard to stomach, overall I enjoyed the book very much.
Publisher: Virago, 1969