October Book Review : I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Under the Oaks : October Book Review, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

For the month of October I’d initially intended on reading Nicholas Sparks’ new sob story, The Longest Ride … but I typically can presume how those stories will start, progress, and end. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to read it and enjoy it … but that fact alone is something I can easily presume. Sometimes I like going into a book not knowing whether or not I’ll like it or hate it because I feel like that’s how I’ll find those “diamonds in the rough”. This month’s chosen book was one of those for me, a “diamond in the rough.”

I was in the ripe mood for a biography when I picked up Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d never read it as part of an educational course, but it was one of those I wish I’d read so I figured what better time than to read it when I want to read it and in my own time. Angelou wrote this story in 1970, documenting the first 16 years of her life. Her story starts in the 1930s in Stamps, Arkansas and documents her life as a young black girl living not with her parents, but with her religious and strong-willed grandmother, disabled uncle, and older brother, whom she adored most in  her life.

Angelou begins her memoir by presenting her readers with small southern town, Stamps, Arkansas and the Store that her grandmother ran and lived in. Most stories located in Stamps take place in either the Store, or church, and Angelou speaks of learning to work with numbers, reading advanced novels for her age, and of the adventures between her and her brother.

“The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson to me.”

For a short stint in time before turning 10, Maya and her brother Bailey were taken to live with their estranged mother in St. Louis. During this stay Angelou was traumatized by her mother’s boyfriend, which left her feeling like a woman at the age of 8. It was heartbreaking and maddening, and she and her brother were sent back to Stamps. Eventually grandmother recognized that at her age it was too much to manage the Store, a disabled son, and two teenagers. This put Maya and her brother on the West Coast in San Francisco, back with their mother. From here they experience a new slew of stories, some heartbreak, and tales of growing up too fast.

One of my favorite tales was of Angelou wanting to work on the street cars in San Francisco at the age of 15 during a time when no other black female had held such a position before, let alone a 15-year-old. She spoke of waiting in the office every day for months to be heard to apply for such a position. Eventually they hire her as the first black woman to become a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. In May of this year the Huffington Post wrote of Angelou’s story. Shortly after this major feat Maya became pregnant and gave birth to her son at the age of 16/17. This is where this memoir ends, but is picked up in Angelou’s additional biographies.

I quite enjoyed Angelou’s story and will be adding her other biographies to my reading list. There was so much that I connected to and understood, while at the same time there was a lot I didn’t, and could never, understand. I appreciated how those differences make each of our stories unique, and yet we are connected in our strengths as young women that have overcome. I feel like a stronger, more inspired woman after reading Angelou’s story. Her story, flaws and all, is genuinely beautiful because it made her the person she is now: a writer of novels and poetry, educator, filmmaker, actress, activist … and mentor; what a neat lady.

I’m curious, have you read Maya Angelou’s other biographies, or poetry? Do you have a favorite that you’d recommend to me or others? xoxo ‘n lols, crystal


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