Friday, September 27, 2013

Memoir Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

To celebrate Banned Books Week, I chose to read Maya Angelou’s famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I can’t believe I never read it before! This intelligent, witty memoir of her childhood just blew me away – I loved every minute of it, and I never wanted it to end. In fact, I can’t wait to read her other memoirs now.

Although this memoir is specifically the story of Maya’s childhood, first in Stamps, Arkansas, and then in San Francisco, it also describes – like the best memoirs – some universal truths about life, in this case, specifically life as a Black child growing up in the United States in the 30’s and 40’s. And what a story she has to tell! It begins with she and her brother being sent by train (by themselves) across the country to live with their grandmother:

“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.”

Don’t you just want to keep reading? She and her brother lived through some incredible challenges and unusual circumstances, but the book is also about everyday life and the universal experience of growing up. As you might expect from a famous poet, she has a way with words. Her writing just pulled me right into the center of the story, right there in the small southern town with her where Blacks did not go to the white section of town, and whites rarely entered the Black section.

Not only does she tell an interesting story, but Angelou also has a way of getting to the heart of things. She often shares the wisdom that her silent but strong grandmother taught her, like “…I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.” As much as I thought I knew about the history of prejudice and segregation, seeing it from a small Black child’s perspective was eye opening and often startling, as here when a special occasion is ruined by a well-meaning but ignorant white politician:

“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.”

Her story was heart-warming, entertaining, and at times, heart-breaking. I was laughing out loud through many chapters (so much so that my husband kept asking what was so funny!) and close to tears while reading others. She has an amazing knack for capturing what it is like to be a child, putting herself back in those innocent moments when some of the things adults talked about were totally mystifying and a first friendship was transforming. I never wanted the story to end. Despite the fact that I have stacks of books waiting to be read, I want to run right to the library to read her next memoir and find out what happened in the next stage of her life. It’s a terrible shame that this emotionally powerful book is one of those most frequently banned.

304 pages, Ballantine Books (though I read the Kindle version)


  1. sandra10:35 PM

    As always,your review has made me want to read this book immediately. Can't wait. Thanks for bringing us all to your level of literature appreciation. I will be requesting this from the library asap.

  2. This definitely sounds like my kind of book? Why was it banned?

  3. Jenny, there is some violence in it, including one pretty horrifying event, plus some scenes that were probably common at that time. And there is some discussion about sex - these are some of the most hilarious passages, actually, because Maya remembers how innocent and naive she was and how little she understood. At one point, not really fully understanding what it means, she worries that she is becoming a lesbian!