In the famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou–singer, author, poet, and civil-rights activist–chronicles her life from birth to age seventeen. Her story is tragic and heartbreaking and full of injustices, yet it sings with hope and life from start to finish.
Maya’s life began with poverty and hardship in southern Arkansas, where her parents abandoned Maya and her brother to be cared for by their grandmother, whom the children called “Momma”. Although Momma cared diligently for them, she was harsh and hard. However, such was life. They were poor, and they were black, and they suffered for it constantly, in a multitude of ways.
When Maya was in grade school, her father came for her and her brother, uprooting them from the only home they knew. Shuttled between her father’s home and her mother’s, and back again to her grandmother’s, Maya encountered even more suffering, through abuse and neglect. The one thing that seemed to give her hope, to provide her with an escape from all the horrors of her life, was her books. Books were her lifeline.
Despite all of the pain in Angelou’s life, the tone of her book is not bitter or full of despair. It isn’t angry, or hopeless. Although those feelings may occur in episodes throughout the book, and such a tone would certainly be justified, Angelou’s book instead exudes resilience and grace. Her memoir, which closes with the birth of her son, is a story of hope.
Maya’s writing is evocative and revealing, painting the world as her young eyes saw it. Her voice is self-aware, keenly observant, and strikingly poetic.
I appreciate that Angelou tells the story of her pain; it is educational, as well as convicting for me as a white reader. I also value her ability to tell about the good things in her life, like her books, and her love for her brother. Angelous doesn’t classify all white people as evil or have a permanent posture of rage towards them, but she does point out white society’s many grievous sins, simply by showing readers the results of racism and prejudice in her own life.
The poem which inspired the name of Angelou’s book (Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy”) provides some insight into her story and the spirit of strength that pervades it. The poem expresses the longing of an imprisoned creature, his persistence as he beats himself bloody trying to get free, and the true reason behind his unceasing song. His singing is a plea to God to free him from the chains that keep him from the life he should be living.
Angelou’s writing and her life make it clear that she never gave up singing for and fighting for that freedom, both for herself and for her community. Her book is a must-read, both as an education in black history, and as the story of a strong and beautiful woman.