I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

6 Caged Birds out of 10.

“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou is a complex autobiography about the authour's developmental stages growing up. The book details her life growing up until the age of 17. Throughout this she is dragged through hell and back, defaced and disrespected. It tackles challenging ideas such as the difference between blood family and built family, living as a rape victim, love, childhood and growing up hated. All culminated with the instilled racism growing up in 20th century America. Above all else, the book highlights how it is not the strong who survive but the survivors who are strong.


The book starts in 1931. Maya Angelou, (born Marguerite Annie Johnson) only 3 years old catches a train with her older brother, Bailey. The two travel alone following their parents divorce. They arrive at a rural town called “Stamps.” A town segregated from the impoverished “black” side and the, notably richer, “powhitefolks” side. There, she lives with her strict grandmother, known as “Momma”, and her 30 year old son, “Willie” who is disabled however, for one reason or another, is unable to get proper treatment. At the heart of Stamps, they own a store together which is the economic lifeblood of the town. Most days, Maya spends her time either at school, reading books or tending to the store. Most chapters are only select events which would change who she would become. For this reason, it’s difficult to summarise completely besides just listing events that happened to her ageing up.

There are several events which both underline Maya’s pride but sometimes shame for being African American and who she is. At the age of only 5 she believes herself to be ugly, having skin 'too dark' and hair 'too curly'. This moment goes on to distort her own ideals of beauty and identity. Another where she remembers one moment where white teenagers from the rich part of Stamps mock and taunt Momma whilst she stands defiant, humming gospel hymns until they grow bored. Maya respects Momma deeply for this moment. Racism is overbearingly present throughout the entire book.

At the age of 8, Maya’s biological father comes to visit Stamps. She notes on how fancy he is however also completely unknown, not welcoming. He takes both her and Bailey to see their biological mother in St Louis. Immediately they are struck by her beauty, how she is so beautiful that she has to be her mother. They meet their other uncles and aunties however St Louis remains alien to them compared to the Stamps they grew up in. She does not make any friends.

In St Louis, Maya meets her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. One night he rapes Maya and promises to kill Bailey if she tells anyone. She is only 8 years old. Eventually both Bailey and her mother find out and Freeman is sent to prison. He is released only to be killed gruesomely, bashed to death outside a bar. Maya laments on this moment, wondering on what she felt was love or not. She convinces herself that loving someone leads to their death as she takes a vow to silence. She is only 8 years old.

She and Bailey are sent back to Stamps not long after. She tells herself that its because a silent rape victim was a drag to be around. Back at Stamps she meets a lady by the name of Mrs. Flowers, the “aristocrat of Black Stamps.” Flowers speaks poetry and literature to Maya, promising to her that she would make her start speaking again. Maya comments on how this moment would inspire her love of books and learning. As she grows up she begins to start talking again and meets her best friend, Louise.

At the age of 14, she is living back again with her Mother in California after Momma planned a trip to take her and Bailey there, this time permanently. She is getting old herself and can’t care for the two of them and Willie anymore. For once, Maya sees a side of her Mother that is fragile and vulnerable rather than the gleaming light that she once was. She lives through World War 2, watches Bailey fall in love and move away when he is only 16 as she becomes the first black woman to drive cabs through California.

The autobiography ends as Maya seeks this grandiose form of love. At the age of 16 she asks a boy next-door to be her boyfriend. She discovers she is pregnant 3 weeks after. She hides her pregnancy, fearing that if her Mother found out that she would stop her from working and pursuing her education. She finally reveals the news to her Mother after she graduates. By this time she is already 8 months pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy not long after.

The final page, Maya is afraid to sleep with her baby in case she rolls over and crushes him. Her Mother tells her that she should anyway to grow a connection with him. Maya wakes up abruptly, having rolled off the bed, as she calls for her Mother. She begins crying but soon her Mother shows her the baby asleep softly in the crook of her arm. She pats the baby’s head as she falls back asleep.


How to start with this book. There is so much to talk about in only the span of a short entry that I don’t believe I could do it justice. Maya Angelou has lived such a rich life with mountain highs and very, very, very, valley lows. Reading the text makes it hard to put down due to just how much horrible injustice and hate which she has experienced in her life. I began to say to myself that “it can’t possibly get much worse” and it did, almost every time. However half way through the book there’s a change in how Maya views herself and it’s empowering to watch Maya grow from self-hatred to self-love. I think fictional stories really take away the power of the individual, something which isn’t lost in autobiographies or other non-fiction texts. Because in a fictional text, all this horrible stuff can happen and it’s just words on text, but in a book quite like this, the abhorrent experiences are all very real and palpable. The way Angelou talks about her and her brother laughing at a pastor losing a tooth to go to the next chapter where Bailey returns home after seeing a rotten black man’s corpse. It’s jarring and I’m not going to lie that it isn’t but that only adds to the visceral element behind the book.

I chose this particular text because of the poem when I studied it last year. The book far outpaced my expectations, I had no idea that the book would be about the racial injustices of 1930’s America, childhood trauma or the ideas of motherhood, love and what it means to be a woman. This book is narrated by Angelou herself. Although it’s only a compilation of anecdotes, her optimistic tone keeps the reader refreshed and intrigued. The plot development (if you can even call it that) was paced nicely, nothing seems too chronologically out of place. Sometimes metaphors seemed forced however that didn’t impact my own interpretation of the book. In fact, literary devices played a central role in Maya’s developmental stages as a kid, literature offered her an outlet of self expression and it was clearly prevalent whilst reading.

The book centres around the authour’s childhood and growing up; however throughout this she is rarely given time to actually behave like a kid. Through vowed silences and all the bleak injustices which racism has forced her to deal with, such as hiding her uncle underneath a box of fruits from a lynch mob at the age of 5, or any other example for that matter, the only real time she is able to properly experience her childhood is for the short time she has with Louise. For instance, when she gets a valentines day card, instead of behaving like any other kid, she rips the card into little pieces screaming “Never again!” Every single time she is faced with an opportunity to live as a child, something always stops her. There are a plethora of examples of how she was forced to grow up, leaving behind a scarred self-image, one where she views herself as ugly however capable, for this is what she perceives that she has to be. She’s never had time just for herself. It’s why when she learns what lesbianism is, believing lesbians to be hermaphrodites, she doesn’t believe her Mother when she tells her that the growth on her vagina means she’s simply growing up, not because she’s a lesbian. She can’t face this reality because she’s had to grow up all her life and now that her body’s physically showing that she feels disgusted.

She had to grow up when she had the teen pregnancy at the age of 17, when she had to drive her drunk father across Mexico at the age of 15, when she was molested by Mr. Freeman at the age of 8, when she had to care and look after the store when she was 5 and when she had to travel the train across America with her brother when she was 3.

She’s always had to grow up.

Personally, I didn’t have a favourite or “most likeable” character because all of the characters in this book are real people. It would be weird to rate real life people on a scale from 1 to 10 and the same standards apply here. I enjoyed everyone in the book besides the racists and obviously Mr. Freeman. Bailey’s antics were funny but most of the time they had a melancholy aftertaste. Just like Maya, he too had to grow up fast, the punishment and trauma which shaped his actions were abhorrent. Again, like Maya, he had a devalued meaning of “love” due to how an older lady treated him. Nothing like Mr. Freeman, however. Bailey was used by her for free food and then she left. The subject left an impression on Bailey’s interpretation of loyalty and love, one of the main reasons why he ran off with a “white prostitute” at the age of 16.

Mr. Freeman is flagrantly the worst character in the entire text. No explanation needed. He doesn’t deserve one.

Another challenge which this autobiography tackles is the complex theme of motherhood. There are three mothers in the book. Momma, Maya’s grandmother, Vivian, Maya’s actual mother and Maya herself. Momma was stern but heartfelt and raised Maya and Bailey most of their childhood. However Vivian is the promised ideal maternal figure for Maya. She is radiant and glowing however shows a more sensitive side later on in the text. She is cunning whilst Momma is antiquated. Both mother figures Maya found safety to confide in; however she herself later feels torn about becoming a mother. She doesn’t believe that she is able to care for the baby the way both her mothers provided for her. This might stem from the fact of her childhood trauma and her feelings on “love” in general. She feels trapped, as if she were to love this baby she would harm it. “What if I crush the baby?” When these worries materialise, it is only natural she would suspect herself unable to love. However when she discovers the baby asleep under the tent of her arm, she discovers the nature of love, the true state of love. The same state of love which her Momma and Mother provided for her. This is why the last page is such a powerful note to end on. It illustrates Maya coming to terms with everything prior in the book, isolated in one single moment. These notions of motherhood and what it means to be a black woman are further explored in her other autobiography “Mom and Me and Mom.”

Another tall order to address is the racism embedded in the text. It is omnipresent and to completely disregard it would be to disregard the entire book. Yes, there are racial slurs throughout the book and yes, they do have substantial influence over the characters. Racism plays a heavy part over Maya’s treatment and own negative self-image. It influences her every action and thought even without her having to directly mention it in the book. When Maya gets a toothache, she learns to tough it out because she knows no dentist will treat her near the Stamps. It is only when she can’t bear the pain any longer, Momma has to take her to see a white dentist who she lent money to during the great depression. He obviously does not treat Maya and immediately tells them to leave his office. When Maya finally graduates from the only school in Stamps, the principal announces that the white people would grow to become “Gallileos and Madame Curies and Edisons,” whilst the black men (he didn’t bother to mention the girls) would grow to become “Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.” Every twist and turn of the autobiography demonstrates how instilled racism was at the time in American society.

Ultimately, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” isn’t for me. Autobiographies were a welcoming change of pace in my reading repertoire and now I understand that I don’t like them. This was a depressing text to read, it was disturbing and visceral. That’s not to undermine the themes prevalent in the text, as that’s the idea of the autobiography, but it was harrowing to watch Maya get her whole world thrown upside down, left in tatters, again and again. Much less the fact that the text takes place before she reaches adulthood. Overall, Angelou challenges the perceived notion of black people at the time, as well as the stereotypical roles of paternal figures, adults and the preconceptual ideas of childhood. The autobiography is a bildungsroman as much as it is a survivor story. Angelou managed to pursue an education in literature, maintain a stable job for a black woman of her time and age all whilst being pregnant. If there is any message to take away, it would be one which the authour stated herself.

“Life was cheap and death entirely free.”