Maya Angelou was an author that I always knew I should read. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings exceeded every expectation I brought to it. Angelou’s words enveloped me and transported me. I read the book in three days, unable to put it down for too long.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s memoir of her early years—from four to sixteen. She explores issues of race, poverty, segregation, rape, and coming-of-age in the midst of everything. She doesn’t shy away from painful or traumatic experiences, but lifts the veil on things hidden. One of the best lines is at the very beginning: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” Angelou shows us the rust on the razor and lets us feel its edge.
This book challenged many of my ideas about race, gender, and sexual assault. Angelou wrote candidly about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend without intense rage. She wrote of deep racial discrimination without hate. She wrote about getting pregnant at 16 without feelings of injustice.
But she gets me. Angelou and I come from very different racial and economic backgrounds. But she has the words for feelings I was never sure how to describe:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
“The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination, as are intelligence and necessity when unblunted by formal education.”
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
This book was complex, yet it read as easily as a piece of fiction. This a book that demands, requires, at least two reads, to fully understand the language and life experiences. Angelou’s first memoir is inspiring and empowering.