Monday, August 27, 2012

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Maya Angelou’s classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has a wonderful freshness and clarity that will ensure it never ages. Volume one of this justifiably famous autobiography explains what it's like growing up a young, coloured girl in a deeply racist society. While there is much trauma in its pages, there is also enough humour, inspiration and personal victory to leave the reader totally uplifted by the book’s end.

Maya Angelou writes in a sweet, musical voice that make her a true joy to read. She also has a lot of tough things to say, and wants to tell the world what it’s like to grow up a coloured child in a deeply racist society. Her autobiography explains, in a visceral way, what it is to be the target of irrational hate and fear.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published in 1969, and is part one of six volumes of autobiography spanning the poet’s life. Volume one begins with Angelou and her brother, Bailey, being sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, after her parents had separated. We learn what it was like to live in the South as an African-American during a period when the Civil Rights movement was some thirty years away. Angelou regularly describes the racism of the whites as ‘irrational’, and therefore, completely beyond the comprehension of its victims. It was literally impossible for coloured people to argue their way out of racism because there could be no sane dialogue about it. White people couldn’t even get their own prejudices straight in their own heads.

When Angelou’s brother, Bailey, has a terrifying encounter with some local whites in Stamps, her grandmother, Momma, decides to send both children back to live with their mother in San Francisco, California. The irrational hatred of the whites made it certain that Bailey’s life would only turn into an ever-worsening nightmare if he was to stay.

The rest of the autobiography shows Angelou coming into her own as a young woman and writer. A constant reader as a child, she memorises Shakespeare and feels an affinity with Jane Eyre. When her hopes and dreams are crushed due to the colour of her skin, Maya takes heart from the philosophy of her feisty mother and determines to make something of herself.

There’s so much to enjoy in this wonderful first volume. Angelou’s writing has a moral gravity that compels  deep attention. She doesn’t try to sugarcoat her self-presentation. While the style is not confessional, Angelou doesn’t shy away from the personal, freely showing her anger, prejudices and uncharitable frames of mind. There is also much bold humour. Angelou frequently drops heavily freighted ironic statements with astonishing ease. In a lot of ways she reminded me of the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor who often wrote in a humourous vein about race relations, lampooning racist or well meaning whites. I also kept thinking of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as I turned the pages.

It’s hard to believe that this first volume of autobiography is now over forty years old. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is so fresh and exhilarating, it seems like it was written only moments ago.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780860685111   RRP: $22.99