Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou
Review first posted April 2004
It took a while to decide to review this book. There is an unfortunately strong current societal meme which says if you are: (less victimized, &/or more financially secure, male, white, privileged, whatever) then you don’t get to comment. I understand it’s a natural reaction to the horror of being silenced due to not being recognized as even human, and I emphatically don’t want a return to that. But as Angelou herself notes, bigotry perpetrated by those who have suffered bigotry doesn’t make it right.
Too, if I am silent due to fear of censure but blame society for it, who is really at fault? I strongly believe in both facing one’s fears, and in allowing all to speak, so meaningful dialogue occurs. How else to learn from each other? So here’s the review. I feel contributing one’s thoughts & experiences to on-going societal dialogue is good, even if — especially if — one’s personal experiences are different than those of others. After all, wide variety in experiences makes for more interesting shared commentary.
And as always, grateful thanks to George!
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 often-stolen item.
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 duly punished.
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, I believe, more beautifully written than) 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.