Soaring from the cage

This is my review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Virago Modern Classics) by Maya Angelou.

As a young girl, Maya Angelou was raped by one of her mother's partners, and later, barely into her teens, was knifed by her father's jealous lover. Such experiences were surely enough to drive her either mad or bad, but she was saved from her charismatic but rackety and self-absorbed parents' neglect by the more solid grounding of time spent with her grandmother. This industrious and enterprising women ran the general store in Stamps, an Arkansas backwater only a step away from slavery. Maya Angelou provides chilling descriptions of the local sheriff who thinks he's doing the family a good turn when he warns her crippled uncle to hide from a possible visit from the local Ku Klux Klan on a warpath of random revenge, or when a respected white dentist has no shame in refusing point black to treat her urgent dental problem, although her grandmother gave him credit during the worst years of the recession.

A varied succession of colourful, by turns funny, moving and violent events, are the tinder for the author's vivid and original prose. This must also have benefitted from the surprisingly good basic education she received against the odds. She describes how, when she was still very young, she wanted to perform a Shakespearean scene at home, but was deterred by the knowledge that her grandmother would winkle out of her the fact that he was not a black writer. That this may be one of many anecdotes which have gained in the telling does not really matter.

One forgives much from an author who, as a mature adult can write: "To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision…. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity".

Although I am not sure I want to continue with her subsequent autobiographical works, since I suspect that the descriptions of Stamps may supply the most powerful and authentic passages, this book has increased my understanding and empathy for, as Maya Angelou puts it: " the Black female… caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power".

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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