Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
The publication of Maya Angelou’s autobiography (which eventually took up seven volumes) was a real landmark in many ways. It was a frank and deeply personal exploration of the Black American experience, from the chaos following slavery to our own muddled times. It gave voice to hidden and repressed aspects of experience — abuse, violation, family dysfunction — that were barely acknowledged at the time. It was a woman speaking about human things, universal things, with power and authority, while embracing her own female sensibility.
Today, we could tend to forget how revolutionary this really was. We are flooded with all kinds of personal narratives, including every variety of harm and abuse one person can do another, and from many shades on the spectrum of gender, race, culture, religion. The abundance can be desensitizing, as well as enlightening. But Maya’s brave, brutal telling of her early life still has the power to shock and awaken us; it lifts up the messy and painful stuff of life as only a poet can.
I do not know why I never read this book until now. Published the year I was born, it was always there, hovering at the edges at my attention. I’m not sorry I waited. If it had been thrust upon me in school, even with an extraordinarily sensitive teacher, I think it would have been one of those books I pushed away because it opened up places I did not want to look into. It’s only now that I’ve been through a little bit of the mill of life — though not as much as Maya, who has gone through about 50 times as much as any ordinary human — that I can begin to appreciate some of what she is offering to us, the open wound that became her source of creativity, her song.
(I want to be clear that I am not in favor of censoring any book — the inclusion of this one in school curricula has frequently been protested based on its subject matter. But I’m also not much in favor of required reading for teenagers. Too many books were spoiled for me that way.)
After finally reading Caged Bird, I went on to read the other six books of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. This is the most brilliant, the most poetic, a real cry from the heart; that energy dissipates somewhat in later volumes, though they are still fascinating to read. There you will also find alternate and sometimes contradictory versions of various events — reminding us that memoir writing is not an exact science.
But it’s not for scientific facts that you will read the books. Read them for the chance to slip into another life, to look through the eyes of a woman who saw the greatest pain and suffering the world had to offer, and who responded by becoming a creator, an artist, a speaker of the message of love. That is something we could all stand to learn.