Thursday, February 07, 2008

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

Originally published in 1969. 281 pages.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Day for the Every Month is a Holiday Challenge, I chose to read this first volume of the autobiographical series of poet, educator, dancer, actress, civil rights activist Maya Angelou. This book also qualifies for the Back to History Challenge, the In Their Shoes Challenge, and my "Banned Books" and "In Their Shoes" categories of the 888 Challenge.

I was mesmerized by Angelou's lyrical presentation of the high and low points of the first eighteen years of her life. Poignant and meaningful, each chapter recounts part of the life experiences that made Angelou the adult she became. These experiences include being raped at age eight by her mother's boyfriend, learning to love books through the encouragement of an adult friend, being subjected to numerous acts of racism, and working as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

First sentence: "What you looking at me for?"

Two favorite passages:

[Bailey, Maya's brother, in recounting the discovery of a black man's corpse and the pleasure a white man took in seeing it:] "The colored men backed off and I did too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?"

Uncle Willie muttered, "They don't really hate us. They don't know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared."

Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?

If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers).

Bans or challenges faced by the book: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is third on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. According to this site:
Since 1983 schools throughout the United States have tried to ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings even though it is celebrated for its elegant prose. Parents, schools, and related organizations have argued that the book encourages deviant behavior because of its references to lesbianism, premarital sex, cohabitation, pornography, and violence. The book's profanity has also caused its removal from school curriculum and library shelves. The Alabama State Textbook Committee accused it of encouraging "bitterness and hatred toward white people." Some schools have removed the book from their classes and libraries; however, many have decided to retain the book. Today the book is still among the most challenged books in American schools.



  1. I have read all six of Maya Angelou's autobiographies and two of her books of essays. I've also had the good fortune to hear her speak in person twice. I think you'll enjoy the rest of her books as well. She's led an interesting life.

  2. It's been quite a few years since I read this one (9?), so I don't remember a whole lot about it, but I do remember how I loved the prose. I've read some of Angelou's poetry as well and think she writes beautifully.

  3. Really good review! I read this book many years ago in high school, but now you've made me want to find it again...

  4. I read this one a while back and loved it. I also love her poetry.