I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou This is a celebrated memoir of a major contemporary American poet, Maya Angelou. The book is often found on recommendation lists and is often assigned in American high schools. It's her coming of age story, detailing Angelou's life up to seventeen years old. Her childhood was spent mostly in the segregated South, the Arkansas of the 1930s. As you might expect of a black girl growing up in those days, Angelou had some bitter stories to tell. There's how when working as a domestic at ten-years-old, her elderly employer tried to change her name to suit her--as you would a dog or horse. The young Maya didn't simply quit or insist on her given name, she retaliated by deliberately breaking the objects she knew the old woman found the most precious, reducing her to tears--and racial epithets. At her elementary school graduation, Maya was provoked to a murderous rage by the insensitive comments of a white man addressing the graduating class. Athletic aspirations? Sure! Just don't strive to be a scientist or poet if you're black his words implied. And not much later, she had to endure terrible pain, because the only dentist for miles around told her and her grandmother that he would rather put his hands into the mouth of a dog than a black person. So yes, Angelou had reason for bitterness, even hatred. Nevertheless, I found how she regarded race troubling. She said of whites that as a child she "couldn't force myself to think of them as people." Later as a teen in California, when she spent a month homeless living with other runaways, she claimed to have had an epiphany: Odd that the homeless children, the silt of the war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man. After hunting down unbroken bottles with a white girl from Missouri, A Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for the rest of my life. Note though how Angelou capitalized "Black" but put "white" in lowercase. That is used throughout the book--even after she claimed to have learned tolerance and respect for the whole human race. It's not all that disturbed me about the book. There's a lot of frank sexual content, including a graphic description of her rape at eight years old. I think what caused disquiet there was how nonchalantly, even lyrically, Angelou described the assault. Part of the problem might be that although she would have been 41 at the time the book was published, she kept herself to the point of view of the young child who just didn't understand really what had been done to her. It made for unsettling reading. Were there aspects of the book I liked, aspects of Angelou that I found admirable? Sure. I loved her story of how she persevered and became "hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars" as a teen not even yet out of high school. I loved the story of the grandmother who raised her, who managed to run a successful business and owned property during the Great Depression--in the segregated South despite being a black woman. And you certainly can see in the prose why Angelou is a celebrated poet. Much of the writing truly is beautiful. But no, I can't honestly say I liked this book--that's why my rating is so low.