” The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance. ” (Ch.34, p.272)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography that vividly depicts her tender years from ages 3 to 16. During depression-wracked 1930s, after her parents’ divorce, Maya and her brother, Bailey, became among the thousands of “frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.” (Ch.1, p.5) Into the home of grandmother Maya and Bailey settle, where it becomes her shelter, and a favorite place to be. living with grandmother, whom she calls Momma, who owns a general merchandise store in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets—nowhere feels safe.
In Stamps segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked . . . (Ch.4, p.25)
Along with racial injustice, the painful sense of abandonment, of being unwanted, haunts Maya’s early childhood. Sent to live with her mother in St. Louis, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover Mr. Freeman. After Mr. Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words. She finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who not only “Makes her proud to be black” (Ch.15, p.95) but also “has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.” (Ch.15, p.91)
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. (Ch.23, p.180)
The memoir traces Angelou’s growth, against heavy odds of social injustice and familiar deficiency, from inferiority complex to confidence. In a literary form that fuses memoir, folklore, and fiction, Angelou eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. Despite the serious subject matter, Angelou’s writing literally flows like a literary river into reader’s heart.
289 pp. Ballantine Books (2009). Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]