Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Review – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou


Oprah’s hero is a hero to many!

**Spoiler Alert

For those who haven’t read anything from Maya Angelou, then there’s a chance that you’ve at least seen her on Oprah sharing her eloquence and inspiration. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir detailing her struggles bouncing back and forth between her lackadaisical parents in California, and her strict, god-fearing grandmother in the south.

Angelou’s descriptive prowess conjures up images which clarify feelings immaculately.

“…seeing him in the flesh shredded my inventions like a hard yank on a paper chain.”

It is this very skill of hers that has had some people arguing that some of the scenes in the novel are too graphic or disgusting to be provided to teenage readers in school. I personally do not find the telling of her story as inappropriate in any way. It hurts to read these things, and you’ll of course be disgusted, but this is life. There is nothing gratuitous about her words. Countless young victims will take solace in knowing that someone as respected as Maya Angelou was able to endure such atrocities and still make it through life as a successful and inspirational woman. I think any typical young woman over sixteen is emotionally capable of hearing these types of truths in a reverent way.

There is one aspect of the story that has me a little concerned. The descriptions of Maya’s completely natural, yet harmful and damaging responses to the sexual abuse that she encountered – feeling guilty, shameful, pitying the abuser for his being punished, partaking in her silencing that was initiated by the adults in her life - leave me a little perplexed as to whether this book will help young people to realize that she is wrong in her feelings, and thus not feel that way about their own situations, or collude with Maya’s thoughts and feel the same way.

“There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn't understand and who made no effort to understand mine.”

How damaging it must have been to Maya to be sent back to Stamps, as though she were being punished for the trauma yet again. All because these adults felt guilty about not protecting her, yet instead blamed her for making them feel uncomfortable because she would not speak to anyone but her brother. They were in fact the ones that encouraged the silencing of Maya when it was said that the incident should never be mentioned again. These types of responses to sexual traumas are the complete opposite of what is healthy for the victim, and I can only hope that any teens that are issued this book to read in school are properly informed of the truth. Children need to know - and Maya Angelou needed to know herself, as a child - what happened to them is not their fault. For the express purpose that teens study I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I feel as though the end of the book needed to have a letter from Angelou to the reader outlining how she views the tragic events of her life now, as an adult.

Angelou’s understanding of the bigotry realized in her lifetime is admirable, and in my opinion the following quotation that takes place after her being snubbed by a white receptionist regarding a job inquiry at the transportation office in San Francisco, is one of the most accurate explanations for the ridiculous hatred black people had, and often still do have, to endure.

“The miserable little encounter had nothing to do with me, the ‘me’ of me, any more than it had to do with that silly clerk. The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. Also because the play must end somewhere.
I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer.”

If the haters of the world would acquiesce to this philosophy and move on with life instead of being so stubborn, then things would be a lot more peaceful and loving for us all.

Abandonment, molestation, family, and racism are but a few of the emotionally charged topics that Maya Angelou shares with us in this intimate, courageous and truly uplifting story of survival.

Some of Maya Angelou’s wise words:

"The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.”
"I was a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for an anchor.”

"She {mother} comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy.”

Below, watch a brief clip signifying Maya Angelou’s deeper understanding of humanity, as she discusses with Russ Mitchell from CBS news, the impact of words.

4/5 Snakes


  1. I remember reading this book as a teen; think I was around 14-15. The scenes describing Angelou's sexual abuse did make me uncomfortable. I'm not sure how I personally would have felt discussing those issues in class. However it is important such issues are raised and there is an outlet for teens to discuss them.

    Thank you, I have placed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on my Bookmooch wishlist for a re-read. Blimey, almost ten years after I originally read it!

  2. This sounds very interesting. I haven't heard of this book before, but I think I'll need to add it to the ol' TBR list! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I think your concern over the book is all the more reason why teaching it in school could be a good thing.

    I read this one for the first time back in November

  4. Opinionated Reader~ I'm interested to hear your thoughts on it a decade later. I don't doubt that you will still be made uncomfortable.

    Bethany~ Enjoy, and let me know what you think after. ;-)

    John~ I suppose you are right, in a class discussion her self-blame and shame would probably be addressed, if not by a clever student, then certainly by the teacher.

    There definitely needs to be an open and direct conversation following a book covering these types of issues.

  5. I have not read this book, but enjoyed your review a lot; thanks so much

  6. I have not read this, but now I want to. Great review.

    Thanks for visiting Rose City Reader and leaving such a nice comment on my post this morning.

  7. Diane~ I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for dropping by. ;-)

    Rose~ You definitely should read this book. It was my pleasure to congratulate you on your success. Cheers to many more!

  8. I read this book back in 1982 when I was in University. (Please don't do the age math. LOL!) This book really made an impact on me. Right after I read it, Maya Angelou spoke at my school and I met her. I will never forget that experience!

  9. You might want to read the sequels. This is the first in a series of 4 memoirs, and I think she addresses some of your concerns in the later books, as she grows up.

  10. Wonderful review. I read this book for the first time a few years ago, and would like to read more of the books in the series.

  11. Teddy Rose~ How wonderful, that you were able to meet such an inspirational and courageous woman. That's definitely something you don't forget.

    Carin~ I had no idea that this was the first of 4 books. Thank you for the heads up.

    Suko~ Thanks. I look forward to reading the rest myself.

  12. what are the sequels

  13. I have read this book this book in my English class, its a very interseting book and really descriptive. I also sawa the movie and the scenes in the movie where not the same as the book, i liked the book way better. Great review by the way :)