I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

I had been debating whether I should read a book by Angelou or Morrison, but was scared at the prospect. As much as I want to read everything and all, I’m more and more aware with age that one must choose.

My 9th grader’s English teacher has required this book for her class. I then decided to read it. The teacher sent an email offering an alternative for those parents who objected.

The book is an autobiographical account of Angelou’s life from childhood until 16 years of age. I can see how it’s highly controversial. It does touch on very tough topics, and while not gratuitously descriptive, it’s all out there, she doesn’t beat about the bush.

I read it in just a few days. I find it of beauty and value. I’m passing the book to my daughter with underlined parts, with some definitions, and with notes at the back marking some important pages.

No one can’t deny Angelou’s talent for writing. She drank from the best sources, -the books, culture and folklore-, and she put her heart and wits in this book. I appreciate her capacity for love and honesty. She offers her life for us to see and to draw our own conclusions.

There’s a lot of wisdom, and through her life, Angelou pierces at America in the flesh of her people: the good, the bad, the hypocrite and the moral upright. Those around her, and herself, are offered as they are, with no pretenses or sugar coating, without embitterment, although she leaves the sting and the burn.

I believe our youth is ready and deserves to wrestle with this book and its offering. If it’s too much for my daughter, she’ll let me know. Yesterday, as we went to see Little Women, the three of us, my 15 year old, my 13 year old, and I, my oldest thought that the movie was too intense, too close to life in many regards. I know, it tagged at my heartstrings too, it was raw and exactly that, too intense. The book has been intense as well, but over the 289 pages, one has time to adjust to it as well.

I’d rather not write about the plot, it’ll strip the book of its shocking factor. It’s not what is told alone, but what’s told and how she tells it, that needs to be heard and read.

The book is full of wonderful yet organic quotes. I leave you with one of my favorites:

“She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors.”

pg. 99 of my edition

(The book being published in 1969, will be a candidate for many Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 categories. I’ll wait until the end of the year to decide where to submit all the classics I manage to read)

37 thoughts on “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

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  4. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Oprah. I too remember, many many years back, I picked a couple of Oprah’s picks. Now I am thinking she’s gone sour from her initial and maybe helpful picks. I love a biased opinion, and an opinionated person, but I don’t appreciate those who change opinions based on things such as money, prestige, or any dishonest motives.

    Glad to hear about your experience watching this with your mom.

    I had no clue about that book called March, but I would have thought the same. What a weird thing to add, going to a whore house? My goodness. How not Little Women’s March.:)

  5. I have never read Why The Caged Bird Sings. Probably a big reason why is I took such strong objection to Oprah’s picks, but that’s a subject for another day. I know Maya Angelou is a most respected writer, and I would like to see what she has to say separate from Oprah’s opinion.

    My mother and I saw Little Women. We both read it when we were children (she gave me her yellowed, brittle-paged copy), and as we were watching the film, I found us both crying. I think it was an exceptional rendition of a novel (too) often made into a movie. It was a titch tricky to follow the bouncing back and forth between times, I think, especially for those who had never read it. But, what a marvelous story. What a worthy film.

    The reason I never liked March, the award winning book by Geraldine Brooks, is that she had Mr. March going into a whore house on his return from war. Clearly, she had no idea who the March family was. And that is enough of my opinion for one comment! 😌

  6. We can always read it again as adults if we feel like revisiting it. It’s a fast read, plot makes you want to know what happened next.

  7. That’s why I say, read it even if it has super controversial scenes and tough parts, read it in 9th grade. It’s going to go over their heads, at the same time they may later recognize it as important.

  8. I read this for my 9th grade class in school as well–we were given 4 options for summer reading and I picked this one because I had heard of the title, knowing nothing else about it. I know I had at least a small level of appreciation for it at the time – I thought it was good – but reading your post, I wonder now how much I really took in. This is probably one I should revisit, as well as reading Angelou’s later memoirs.

  9. Sherry, how amazing to have heard Angelou speak. I love your comparison, 🙂 And a huge YES to turning pain into art. Isn’t life, -or part of it-, to turn pain into art, and even into faith? That’s redemptive. Re-read, or maybe read her African years bio. Lisa says she loved that one.

  10. I had the honor of hearing Maya Angelou speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing many years ago. It was an experience I’ll never forget. When she walked out on stage, I saw the embodiment of the word “presence.” She had presence like no one I have ever seen.

    I am glad you decided on Angelou rather than Morrison. I find Morrison much harder to read. Not that she isn’t a good writer, but hard. Maybe the comparison is similar to being pricked by a pin (Angelou) or smashed by a hammer (Morrison). And yet they were both able to take their experiences, and the experiences of people they loved, and turn them into art, thereby bringing a form of redemption from their suffering.

    Thanks for reviewing this, Silvia! It’s been so long since I read either. Maybe it’s time for a reread of Caged Bird.

  11. My philosophy is that if someone had to live through it, the very least I can do is read about it.

    Love the quote you chose too.

  12. Oh, you’re braver than I to read these modern books! I’m glad to hear that Angelou views people as people. That’s refreshing. It’s one of the things I love about Booker T. Washington; blacks and whites were the same to him. I think that attitude is one of reconciliation and love. Other slave narratives I’ve read often see all or most whites as the enemy and I find that instead of bringing reconciliation, it’s divisive. I’ll certainly keep this book in mind.

  13. Well, I look forward to giving it a try. Thanks.

    BTW, I’m going to post about One Hundred Years read-along on Feb 1, and I’m using a little different reading schedule. I’ll email you the schedule, and let me know what you think.

  14. Yes, I almost made that point about it being ‘American’. Australians are imbibed through the education system with English culture, history etc. Anything American is the exception. At home we had almost nothing American on the shelves – adult, that is. Of course we read the children’s classics.

  15. Sharon, brave point. I’m totally disqualified to speak about Morrison. However, in this book, I identified a lot with Maya, as I identify myself with others I am not, in terms of humanity. There’s a lot of coming of age, which we all relate to, a lot of family dynamics, and it’s more as you say a matter of good people and bad people. Worth noting is the honest portrayal of the men in her life and also the contrast between rural and urban.

    Where I live and specially among the highschool students my daughter belongs to, this book is important.

    However, I too can see your lament. I do hear your fatigue and frustration. Don’t read it. There’s many books that I can’t read because they tire me existentially speaking.

    Back to your last point, I too think it’s narrowing and alienating to state that as a black person you can only write about black issues. I sense a discomfort in Morrison that may be unfounded. As for Angelou, she views people as people. I didn’t find anything that tired me or gave me guilt, much on the contrary, I think I gained some understanding of her situation in the world, and at times I forgot I was inside black lives but saw something universal in her experience.

    I can’t read bleak, hopeless, bitter, no matter what the race of the author or the year of publication. This book moved me and gave me hope. But Sharon, there’s lots of books that offer this in different ways, so, “I give you permission to ignore it”, LOL.

  16. I have not read this book and doubt if I ever will. I think my quota of White Guilt barometer has hit the top. I’m suffering from “white girl fatigue”. Identity politics has worn me down.

    Maybe I’m wrong, because I haven’t read either author, except a short story by one and an essay by the other. In the short story, the white people were so nasty. I’m sure there are people like that, but I agree with Thomas Chatterton in his book, Self-Portrait in Black and White. As a man of mixed race he contends that those sort of people are just plain nasty regardless of their race or anyone else’s. They’d be nasty to you even if you were of the same race. He argues against turning people into “types”. I agree with him.

    Also, one of them, I don’t know which, but I think it might have been Morrison wrote an essay I read where she asserts that as a black person you must, in fact can, only write through the history of racism. You cannot write as an individual but as someone belonging to a race that has been mistreated and oppressed. That is the only identity you are allowed to have and the only eyes through which you may see the world.

    In other words, if you’re black, you can only write about black issues. To me this robs a person of their individual identity far more than racism has done. Chatterton speaks of this as well, saying that humans need to discard viewing themselves or others as “types”. We need to view ourselves and each other as people.

  17. I meant when you were young.

    I love when she talks about what she thought from reading the British classics about the people. Hahaha. I too pictured them by the chimney, with the tea and scones, their dresses. She nailed it. I loved all her book references, I read almost all to my daughters.

  18. You know? I’m going to continue too. There’s something very relatable in how she narrates and gives shape to her experience that’s very specific and universal at the same time. I agree with how things go over our heads when we are young. But something sticks too. I don’t believe in censorship. Not I, whose daughter has watched things with my permission that have challenged her. I don’t want her to miss this opportunity to read and see what it means to be a woman, and many of the challenges that many of her friends, family, and acquaintances go through. I’m sure you got what Angelou offers from other books. Lory and now you too, have motivated me to continue. And she’s so “easy” to read, her engagement with the reader is fierce.

  19. I do remember seeing it in the teen section of the children’s library when I was a kid, so at least it was available to kids when and where I grew up. I don’t know why I never picked it up. Possibly because the cover didn’t grab me or maybe I thought it was poetry. Much of what I read as a child was based on whims like that. I think had I read this at 14, some of aspects might have gone over my head as well, but that’s OK. I read other books at a young age that I only later in life was able to process. I think it is great that you passed it on to your daughter and are open to discussing any and all of the book with her.

    I read it only a few years ago myself but was, like you, so very impressed with the writing. It was so vivid and yet at the same time straightforward. And it is so important that we have these voices from the not so distant past reminding us how it was to live as an African American in the U.S. The change in how she was able to move and live in the South juxtaposed with her later years in the Midwest and then still later on the West Coast is fascinating. I just marked the second memoir “Gather Together in My Name” since your post and Lory’s recent post have inspired me to continue reading the memoirs.

  20. I won’t be embarrassed. I have the feeling this is an American book. Not that it can’t be read by others, but it is very important to Southern people, to those who live immerse in this reality that hasn’t overcome the Civil War issues but has to deal with them in the present.

  21. She’s not like Marquez at all. The Kite Runner rape was much harder. Angelou, she has earned my respect and admiration. Because this is true, or because her way of telling the bad with an economy of words and also embedded in a poetic way of dignifying hardships, not to make them beautiful, but to make them human, I’d said she’s managed to write something hard but very accesible and empowering at many levels. We all can see ourselves in much of her experience, if not in the particulars, in her account of growing up, relationships, family, childhood. And no profanity, just mentioned that so and so spoke using it.

    I suspect Morrison is different.

    I would love to have an open discussion with any and all after some of you read it.

  22. Have to be embarrassed to admit that I’ve not even heard of this book before. But I have now put it on my to read list.

  23. Glad you brought this up. I’m planning to read this either 2020 or 21. I look forward to seeing what it is all about. Question: would you say Angelou writes in a true state about sensitive topics? Sometimes that is tolerable and necessary. While I was reviewing One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was reminded of how raw the author can be at times…like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Both spoke so plainly about natural bodily functions, and in Marquez’s case, he was very graphic. He also used profanity. Is that what you are referring to, regarding this title?

    I once tried reading Song of Solomon by Morrison, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter. But I have a copy of The Bluest Eye, which I will read someday. I’ll give her another try.

  24. I second your sentiment fully. O do believe in letting good and committed teachers freedom to choose their course. I also seldom believe in censorship, specially of books, and particularly of a title with so much value such as this one.

  25. Things are so different now in our world. A good teacher can do wonders to raise awareness. I don’t think censorship is the answer, as sadly this book has often been.

  26. I really need to read this one. I haven’t made time for it yet. If you want to try Morrison, I suggest Sula as a place to start. Beloved is excellent as well.

  27. It may sound pompous, (big truths do sound a bit like this) but it also rings true. She endured what would have broken many. How did she do it? My turn to sound pretentious claiming that I know the answer, but the love, good morals, and wisdom she was surrounded with and that she received at different instances from her relatives and those she met, may have played a part in all this. Her own innocence, which, despite the ugliness she received, wasn’t completely tarnished, is a testimony of the triumph of the human spirit.

    The book also, to me, speaks of the existential and moral value of literature and books.

    I’m also in awe at Lory!

  28. Such a good review of a wonderful but difficult book. I read it so many years ago, I’ve forgotten many of the details but not the emotional impression it made on me. As you say, Angelou lays it all out there. Her life included horrific events that could have been unbearable to read about, but there’s so much beauty and delicacy in her writing that you’re left with a sense of — is it too pompous to say a triumph of the human spirit? (well, maybe a little bit pompous, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. She endured what would have broken many other people and did so without bitterness).
    I loved the quote you selected! I’ve known many people, several of them family members, who weren’t well educated because they lacked the opportunity but — they were among the smartest people I knew. In Angelou’s terms, they were illiterated but not ignorant.
    I always meant to go on and finish Angelou’s story (what a wonderful accomplishment for Lory! I’m in awe!). Maybe one day?

  29. I know, Lory, I find 9th graders young on one end, but ready on the other. When I was young, topics like the ones Angelou touches in her book went more over my head, and at the same time, I believe they need to be discussed, at least with this Houston urban bred children. However, I’ll take my daughters cues in case I have to change my decision. (I’ve marked the chapters at the beginning, to warn her of what’s coming, in case she wants to skip. We shall see. I’m also confident on her teacher, and how she’s going to manage this in the classroom.

  30. I am just reading the last of Angelou’s autobiographies, having started with this one a few months ago. It is an amazing but very harrowing story that every mature reader should be acquainted with. I don’t know that I would have been ready inn 9th grade — but children are different. I appreciate your sensitive review.

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