I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
April 2004 book review (3 of 3)
by Collie Collier
I should note up front, my life and Angelou's were very
different. Reading about her childhood was varyingly eye-opening,
horrifying, inspiring, tragic, and touching. I've heard,
however, the story apparently deeply touches some who read it --
the librarian who helped me find the book mentioned it was an
I found the book interesting, I found much of it tragic, it
was often sympathetically or brilliantly written, and I am glad
I read it. Just because I am not touched to my very soul by it,
however, doesn't make it -- or me -- any less good.
That being stated up front, I had a few interested thoughts
on the book. The first thing which hit me was the title. It's a
lovely, evocative title, but it is never referenced in the book --
not once. I found this a fascinating expression of Angelou's
writing style. She lays out the pieces of the puzzle with
graceful, evocative prose, but she expects you to have the wit to
put the pieces together into a coherent and meaningful whole.
I rather like that. It allows for some subtlety and depth in
her writing. It is obvious little in her life is a simplistic
binary issue -- things are not just bad or just
good -- and she portrays that complexity with grace.
Her depiction of her grandmother is an excellent
example. "Momma" was a strict Fundamentalist and disciplinarian,
but also a kind-hearted, shrewd, practical woman who faced the
racist sniping of quotidian life with inspiring dignity. Angelou's
childhood relationship with this imposing guardian figure is
written with warmth, affection, and honesty.
Her view on organized religion (as opposed to her view on her
grandmother and her faith) is nowhere near as kind or respectful
-- probably with good reason. The traveling black minister
is portrayed as a greedy, overweight, self-centered gossip;
the behavior of the more "ecstatic" fundamentalist churchgoers
incites the children into laughter -- for which they are later
Later, Bailey's innocent use of an everyday euphemism is
interpreted by their grandmother as blasphemy against god,
and Bailey is beaten without mercy. This leaves both Maya and
the reader with the perception of the church as a powerful
but distantly capricious master, in some ways to be as greatly
feared and misunderstood as the thoughtlessly malicious white
folks who created the religion the church is based on.
Indeed, the entire scene of the traveling revival tent show
presents a carefully crafted satire on the uselessly palliative
nature of the church, on a par with (and more beautifully
written, I believe) Mark Twain's funeral scene in Huckleberry
Finn. Angelou goes one step further, in fact, portraying the
self-righteous emotional purge of the community of church-goers
as ultimately equally ineffective as the desperate, shrill gaiety
of the partying gamblers.
It is my guess this complicated thread of religious fervor
against all common sense has the most impact on Maya's life
towards the end of the book. Having little good experience with
sex, and no training in normal human biology, the young Maya
worries she is a lesbian. At 16 she decides to prove conclusively
she is not one by having sex with a boy.
Unsurprisingly the encounter is rushed, joyless, and without
much meaning for either of them. Also unsurprisingly, Maya
gets pregnant. She keeps the pregnancy a secret, revealing it
only in about the 8th month. At that time she receives help and
comfort from her family, bears the child, falls in love with
this perfect thing she's created almost completely on her own
but fears she will accidentally harm it.
The final scene in the book is Maya's mother forcing her to
sleep with the baby, then waking her later to show she's cradling
the baby quite naturally, and without harming it.
No, really, that was it -- that was the end of the book. I
admit, I was quite confused, and a bit disappointed. I turned
the page to see if I'd missed something -- but there was nothing
to miss. I checked to see if pages had been torn out? No. That
was really, truly It -- The End.
I felt like her editor had snatched the manuscript randomly
from her hands to publish it unfinished. It was dissatisfying,
confusing. It left me with a strong "So? Is that it?" feeling.
It was a friend of mine who gave me what I believe was the
critical point to my understanding the book's ending. As my
friend pointed out, I have no desire to be a parent. I don't
wish to bear or raise children, and I believe the mystique of
"motherhood" is in its own way as much a cultural construct as
marriage or corporations.
However, as my friend noted, authors present those scenes
and situations they personally feel are meaningful. Obviously,
Angelou considered the final scene deeply personally significant,
or she wouldn't have included it in the book.
This was what I'd initially missed. For the young Maya,
successful creation, possession, and nurturing of her child,
without accidentally harming it, was an incredibly important
moment in her life. I think she realized at that moment that
despite her poor self-image, to have been the originator of such
a beautiful and perfect child, there must be something of worth
and beauty in her as well.
Once I grasped that, I found the ending rather touchingly
apropos. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the young Maya as you
read about her troubled, difficult struggle to find herself in
the midst of the often indifferent or even deliberately malicious
environments she was dragged through as a child.
To discover she finally found personal peace and joy through
motherhood becomes a source of satisfaction for the reader as well
as for her, and an encouragement to face life as unflinchingly
and fearlessly as she, with dignity and self-respect. Perhaps
it is also a sign that someday even caged birds can escape,
and sing in freedom.