Tuesday, September 17, 2013
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
"Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age–and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns about love for herself and the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned."
Angelou brilliantly shows a wide array of personalities and environments. Despite her vastly different upbringings in the South and Missouri, Angelou depicts each smoothly and with nuance. I really loved seeing the contrasts between her grandmother, Momma, and her biological mother. It seems like Angelou was raised with two completely different models of femininity and womanhood. Momma is hard-working, independent, God-fearing and is very focused on raising her grandchildren. Her biological mother is just as independent, but she has a much looser moral code of conduct, an affinity for the extravagant, and treats her children more like accessories In Angelou's later autobiographies, I would be interested to see how these two feminine ideals shaped her own identity.
I also really appreciated the way Angelou talked about racism. Everything from the white speaker at her eighth grade graduation whose arrogance and idiocy ruined her moment, to when she had to fight to become a streetcar conductor, Angelou shows that racial struggle permeates all facets of her life. She never has the luxury of forgetting the power dynamic that America was built upon.
Much in the same way The Glass Castle poses questions about the responsibility adults have to children, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shows Angelou as largely unprotected by her elders. One of my favourite scenes of the book is when Angelou has to drive her drunk father to the Mexican border. She's been completely abandoned and has to rely on her own abilities in order to keep herself safe. Her exhilaration and terror in the scene is palpable, and that moment of self-dependency is incredibly well written.
After hearing so much about the infamous rape plot line within Caged Bird, I was expecting it to be much more graphic and prevalent in the piece. Instead, it was brief and completely understandable from the perspective of a child. Any graphic components of the book are absolutely necessary for Angelou's narrative, and I don't understand why it's been banned so often. These moments may be disturbing, but they're never glamorized or deemed unimportant. They do what literature should: educate us so that we can better understand, empathize and identify. I really loved Angelou's journey to healing after experience sexual abuse, as well.
Overall, this memoir is amazing. It's very well written, and it creates a lot of commentary around innocence, sexuality, parenting, race, and gender. I understand why it's so famous. My only real issue is that the ending felt more like a chapter break than a true conclusion. 4 and a half flowers.