Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Title: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou

Author's web site, maintained and updated as a memorial:
Date: 1969
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-27937-8
Length: 246 pages

Quote: “He was gone, and a man was dead because I lied.”
As described in her memoirs, Maya Angelou’s conscious life began when she was sent from her mother’s home to her grandmother’s home on a train. She was three; her brother Bailey, who was the source of what became her stage and pen name (“my-a sister”), was four.
She doesn’t seem to have talked much at any stage of childhood. The “Einstein Syndrome,” in which little boys who are gifted, but not in language skills, don’t speak until they’re three or four and can say complete sentences, appears to be sex-linked. Still, it’s easy for gifted little girls to choose silence, sometimes merely because they realize that they’re not yet able to express their thoughts in words others can understand. Being whipped for innocently repeating the expression “by the way” (“Jesus is the Way...His Name will not be taken in vain”), tortured by “po’ White trash kids” who bullied Maya and Bailey by insulting their grandmother, and taken to charismatic church services where children were punished for laughing or talking about the funny things the adults did, would have been more than enough to motivate a bright child to choose silence.
Of course, as many readers remember, that wasn’t all that pushed Maya into silence., At age eight, she was raped. Wanting to be sure the rapist went to jail, she denied that she had allowed him to touch her in the past. The rapist was sentenced to jail time, then released on bail, and spectators who didn’t think that was enough killed him. Maya, who thought that was too much, spoke only to Bailey for a year.
She did not “bury the memory.” “Buried memories” that surface only when people take antidepressants, long after an event, are unreliable...often drug-induced pseudomemories.
She did not have a mental breakdown.
She did not compulsively do things more stupid than the things her unmolested friends were doing. Teen Maya’s adventures are a lively mix of brilliant achievements and ignorant-kid shenanigans. On a road trip with her father, she drinks enough tequila to make a fool of herself, but not too much to drive after her father passes out. She qualifies for, and accepts, a scholarship to attend an openly “un-American” night school; the story of how this piece of ignorance worked against  her will be in the next volume. Tired of being a child, she browbeats the city transportation service into making her the first Black, female, and underaged streetcar conductor in San Francisco , works for a few months, then quits. At sixteen, worried that her tall, skinny body isn’t seen as “feminine,” she becomes a single mother.  She makes plenty of mistakes, but she faces the consequences and copes with them well.
She survives all the abuse without any kind of “professional help.” Without, apparently, even any “therapeutic” conversations.
This fact-based content would be quite enough to give I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings its place on high school reading lists, even if Angelou hadn’t also happened to be a gifted writer who creates the illusion that readers really are in an Arkansas country store or on a San Francisco streetcar. 
This book is warmly recommended to any adults who may not have read it yet. I personally think the frank, not fantasized or glamorized, sexual development of Maya (and Bailey; they don’t explore sex together, but they confide in each other more than many brothers and sisters ever would) ought to interest only physically mature readers, though exceptions might be made for children who have been sexually abused. I don’t think teenagers who are slower to develop sexually need to read more than the bare facts, which should be presented with a focus on What You Must Not Let Anyone Talk You Into Doing If You Don’t Want To Be A Teen Parent; let them discover pleasure for themselves as they grow into it—and lock up anyone who tries to tell them that they must be “gay.” So I think I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be reserved for grade eleven or twelve, not thrust upon presexual children. But I know of nobody who read this book, after age seventeen or eighteen, and regretted it. In the “reminiscences of childhood” genre it’s among the world’s best.

I wrote this post, and the ones that follow, several years ago when I had a matched set of Angelou's memoirs on display in a physical store. It took longer to write short reviews of these books than it took to sell them. I no longer have the books in my possession; and Maya Angelou no longer has any use for money. However, if you want to buy it online here, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will still cost you $5 for the book + $5 for shipping.