The picture on the cover of my old copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shows an angry and dignified woman, and in some ways this is an angry memoir. Although I’m sure this anger helped sustain Maya Angelou during a difficult life and pushed her to make significant advances for herself and her people, I hope she became happier later. She earned it.
This book is the powerful story of the first 16 years of Maya Angelou’s life. She and her brother Bailey were raised by their grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, after being sent there alone on a train from California at the ages of three and four by their parents. Much of the book deals with her upbringing by a strict and religious, somewhat reserved but caring grandmother in the racially segregated South.
Although life in Stamps was no picnic, her brief visit to her mother in St. Louis when she was eight was disastrous. There she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. That was not the only event in her life that could have proved catastrophic.
Angelou speaks with raw transparency about the feelings of insecurity that she battled through her girlhood, a combination of her treatment by whites and her own feelings of unattractiveness. In her younger years she was saved by her love of reading, later by her own dignity and will to succeed.
This book is deeply involving and at the same time sometimes disturbing reading. I was brought to tears at the description of Angelou’s nearly ruined graduation, not when the pompous white guest speaker put the class in its place, but by how the valedictorian rescued the occasion. I was thrilled when Angelou’s perseverance won her a position, at the age of 15, as the first African-American cable car employee of San Francisco.
I think this story of pride and dignity against bigotry is inspiring for anyone.