I know why the caged bird sings, ah me
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The caged bird “sings of freedom”, writes Maya Angelou in her poem “Caged Bird” – a poignant recurring image throughout her work, as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. This evocative first volume of her six books of autobiography, originally published in 1969 (1984 in the UK), vividly depicts Angelou’s “tender years” from the ages of three to 16, partly in the American South during the depression-wracked 1930s, while also offering timeless insights into the empowering quality of books.
The painful sense of being unwanted haunts her early childhood, for when Maya (then known as Marguerite) is three and her brother Bailey four they are sent to the “musty little town” of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to “To whom it may concern”, dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their “calamitous marriage”. Living with their grandmother, “Momma”, who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets – nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover Mr Freeman (“a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”). After Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words.
Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs Bertha Flowers who, writes Angelou, “has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”. The memoir’s absorbing emotional arc traces Angelou’s growth from inferiority complex to confidence, finding the strength to tackle “the puzzle of inequality and hate” and be hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco thanks to her “honeycomb of determination”.
Challenging societal structures, Angelou also succeeds in altering literary structures, experimenting with the capabilities of memoir – indeed, her editor had dared her to “write an autobiography as literature”. Told with a winning combination of wit and wisdom, this is a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.
“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.”