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, Mayais attacked by a man any times her age-and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns about love for herself, and 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.
I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time, at age 23. I feel that in not making this required reading, the public school system failed me in a terrible way. This autobiography of Angelou’s childhood and adolescence was outstanding. It was funny, heartbreaking, moving and inspirational.
Maya (Marguerite) and her older brother Bailey spent most of their childhood under the care of their grandmother and uncle in Stamps, Alabama, where they helped run the family general store. Their parents, who lived in St. Louis and later California, moved in and out of their lives only on occasion.
As a Black girl in the South in the ’30s-’40s, Maya faces plenty of hardships, including racial segregation and outright hatred of Black people. She is denied treatment by a white dentist, she and her grandmother endure insults from white children. In California, when she’s a teenager, she is initially refused a job as a streetcar driver because she is Black (only after extreme persistence over the course of a few weeks is she finally handed an application). Furthermore, when she is only eight years old, Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis, and afterward she is simply sent back to Stamps. Her mother—and even more so her father—is an impermanent aspect of her life.
Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—Maya’s story is a triumphant one, and there are joyful moments and funny anecdotes throughout. Her pride in “her people,” as she says, is palpable. I nearly cried when, during Maya’s graduation, her class and the audience began to sing the “Negro national anthem” after being insulted and belittled by a white speaker. It was a very powerful moment. Maya is smart and hardworking, and she loves to read. She is also simply a child observing the strangeness of life, and as she grows she slowly learns that society and people can be cruel and unfair. She also learns how to rise above.
We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.