I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a personal account told in the voice
of a child cleverly reconstructed by an adult narrator. Through the observations of Maya, the child, comes a coming-of-age story - a social record of a young black female growing up in the 1930s. As an historical document 'Caged Bird' covers the bigotry, cruelty, oppression and the constant threat of death that constituted daily life in the South.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.*
The autobiography is also a representation that can be read as a feminist observation.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. Maya was fortunate to have the unbending support from strong, financially independent, no-nonsense women like Momma (her paternal grandmother) who owned land and a grocery business, her mother Vivian who owned a gambling hall, and even her politically well-placed, octoroon maternal grandmother Baxter: all whose convictions not to be dependent on men, provided Maya with the foundation on which to build her self-assurance.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.*
More significantly, after the violent traumatic and pivotal experience of her young life from which she 'loses' her speech, we are reminded that abject struggle often precede success; it is through her strong willed teacher, Mrs. Flowers, that Maya finds confidence, self worth and retrieves from imprisonment her voice. The last part of Maya's journey through adolescence is poignant in the mother/ daughter / infant visual, and although she is still uncertain and insecure, she receives the promise of maturity: Mother whispered, “See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.*
Maya Angelou eloquently articulated how the painful struggles and scattered happy experiences of growing up in the South had a significant role in the shaping of the gifted, outspoken, determined, inspirational person she became.
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in the magnificent six-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou (April 1928 - May 2014): a poet, author, civil rights activist, professor, feminist. A brilliant achievement, highly recommend. My copy is from The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou ( Modern Library) 2012
*verses from the poem 'Caged Bird' by Maya Angelou, are not presented in original sequence.