Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

My second Banned Books Week selection is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) by Maya Angelou.  I’ve heard Angelou speak at a William & Mary convocation, read her poetry, and admired her for a long time but never got around to reading this keystone book until now.

It was worth the wait.  Basically it is an excellent memoir of Angelou (or Margeurite Johnson as she was known) childhood and coming of age living in Stamps, AK, St. Louis, and California.  She and her older brother Bailey are raised primarily by their grandmother whom they call Momma.  A prominent store owner and devout Christian, Momma is a loving and stabilizing influence compared Angelou’s parents who lead glamorous lives but are often distant and irresponsible.  At one point when Maya is 8 they go to live with her mother in St. Louis.  This is a traumatizing time due to Maya’s rape by her mother’s boyfriend and the murder of the rapist by one of her uncles.

The specter of racism hangs heavy over Maya’s life.  The whitefolk live in the whitetown where the whitewind blows.  An inspiring moment in the book occurs at Maya’s high school graduation.  A white superintendent gives a condescending address that deflates all the hope and joy the students have in the occasion.  Then the student speaker is able to restore their pride by leading the choir in singing “Lift Every Voice” (the second time this year I’ve learned about the Black National Anthem after never hearing about it before).  Later in life Maya asserts herself to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

Another great story involves traveling to Mexico with her father, ostensibly to purchase ingredients for a Mexican meal, but really for her father to cheat on his girlfriend.  With Bailey Sr. passed out drunk after a fiesta, the 15-year old Maya decides to drive them back over the border even though she’s never drive a car before.  The results are comical and disastrous.  After a fight with his girlfriend Dolores, Maya runs away and lives in a junkyard with several other children for a month.

What a life and what a start for one of our great writer/poet/teachers, all told in her distinctive voice!  So why would anyone want to ban this book?  For starters, the details of her rape are told in unfiltered terms.  Maya’s life living among colorful characters of St. Louis and San Francisco leads to an acceptance as well of theft and crime in morally ambiguous terms.  Finally, a teenage crisis where she fears she’s lesbian leads Maya to have sex with a boy which leads to pregnancy and teenage motherhood. Obviously these are controversial reasons but certainly ones that I think children today may identify with and learn from as opposed to being sheltered from by banning the books from schools and libraries.