I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
© 1969 Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography in the form of a novel, following a young woman’s coming of age as she journeys from a small town in the South to the big city – and then there and back again. Functionally abandoned by her parents, and constantly worried about her status as not only an awkward and homely girl from a family full of photogenic frames and faces, but being a racial outcast, Maguerite makes her way by a loving grandmother and brother and books aplenty. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings largely out of peer pressure, since it is always mentioned in the hallowed company of books like The Scarlet Letter and Tom Sawyer, hailed as essential American and Southern literature.
Racism dominates Caged Bird just as the wilderness fills the reader’s experience in The Last of the Mohicans; Angelou writes that segregation was so complete in Stamps, Arkansas that she hardly ever saw a white person. In her younger years , Stamps’ white citizenry were phantoms who she scarcely regarded as human. They were cold and distant authority figures, or ‘powhitetrash’ wretches who behaved like little barbarians yet expected the blacks of Stamps to defer to them. On the rare occasions that Marguerite and her family entered the white side of Stamps to buy goods unavailable in their own neighborhoods, they ran the risk of being refused service – as happened with a dentist.
This book remains controversial because of several scenes of sexual violence, which I approached with some trepidation – intending to skim over them, if need be. There are three scenes like this within the same chapter, and Angelou renders them in a way to convey a child’s confusion and detachment – the sort of detachment one adopts while at the dentist, or in preparation for a surgery, a self-defense against panic. Following these scenes, Marguerite enters a mute period in which she reads more devotedly than ever, before finding a positive vision of womanhood in her community to guide her out of the darkness.
In her path to womanhood, Marguerite was provided with several examples, strong in their own way. Central to her life is her grandmother, “Momma”, who operates a general store that is also the community center for Stamp’s black community. While the store never makes them wealthy, the family’s frugality and Momma’ adaptability allow them to weather even the Depression in mild comfort, lending money even to white business owners – including the dentist who considers his obligation merely fiscal, and refuses to budge from his policy of not treating blacks. Momma and her family provide a safe haven for the main character and her brother, a haven not found when they visit or live with their parents. Marguerite’s mother is beautiful and independent, but her world is full of violence; when Marguerite is raped, it is at the hand of one of her mother’s beaus. Her father, too, is handsome but not altogether reliable; when he takes Marguerite to Mexico to buy supplies, his drunken revelries force Maguerite as a young teenager to attempt driving for the first time in literal terra incognita – a mountainous descent in rural Mexico. A third example for Marguerite is the mysterious Mrs. Flowers, who has a regal bearing and a full library, both of which inspire Maguerite to better things. For the most part, she takes those lessons to heart — fighting a protracted campaign to become a streetcar conductor, the first black woman to enter the service. Yet at the end, she decides to have sex with a boy to determine that she is not a lesbian, promptly becomes pregnant, and after the delivery of her boy, the novel ends. It’s as if a story of King David ended abruptly with his having Uriah killed so he could cover his petty lust with Bathsheba. I know the person of Maguerite — Maya Angelou — went on to greatness, but as a novel by itself, it’s a weird way to end things.