Maya Angelou “I know why the caged bird sings” – book review

This is another book that I listened to on Audible over a long period of time. But the narration is so spectacular (the book is narrated by the author herself) and the writing so compelling that it feels very fresh in my mind.

This is the first, most famous, volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. She describes what it was like to grow up as a black girl in the US in the 1930s. The narrative starts with Marguerite (Maya was her nickname) and her brother Bailey living in the small town of Stamps in Arkansas with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. Their parents had divorced and left the children in the care of the grandmother. She seems to have been an incredibly tough woman – not only taking care of her grandchildren, but also the successful owner of a general store – and even some of the white folks in town borrowed some of her money during the Great Depression. The children’s travels from parents to grandmother and back to their parents form a thread throughout the narrative.

It is Bailey who mostly craves the company and the attention of “mother dear”, as only a child who actually can remember the missing parent can, Initially, one can sense that Maya would have been quite happy to stay in Stamps, but the children’s father picks them up to drop them off unceremoniously at their mother’s and her relatives in St. Louis.

But this is selling an incredibly vivid story short. To give you a little taste, here’s a link to the opening prologue. And from this point on, if you’ve not read this book, you might want to stop reading the review, as spoilers abound.

In fact, the reason that I paused in listening to the book for a while, was perhaps because it made too much of an impression. The vivid description of Maya’s childhood sexual abuse by her stepfather was heart rending and very difficult to listen to without flinching. The vengeful bit of me was almost glad of the fact that Maya’s uncles probably murdered the perpetrator in revenge – especially when the authorities only kept him in jail for a single day. But the little girl blamed herself for the man’s murder – and stopped speaking for a number of years. It is her love of reading and books that brings her back to speech.

One gets a real sense of brutality of the times the narrator describes. At one point, her mother shoots and wounds a man who called her a bitch.

Later on, Maya gets “cut” by his father’s girlfriend, blood seeping all over her. Instead of taking her to hospital, her Dad stows her away at a friends – as he would be embarrassed to be the talk of the town. The father in this book – a charismatic man with an affection for the ladies, but not particularly capable of taking care of his children, reminded me a little of Zora Neale Hurston’s description of her father in Dust Tracks – only I read the books almost together (one on audio, one on paper), so I worry that they might slowly fuse into one in my brain.

Maya’s mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful woman who enjoyed life – and there are on occasion scenes of truly touching intimacy between the two of them. My favourite was the episode where the poor narrator is so worried about her changing teenage body that she wakes her mother up in the middle of the night. Her mother, completely unfazed, shows her the entry in the dictionary for vagina and the anatomy of a woman’s body parts. That said, the same mum was also capable of not noticing, a year later, that her daughter was eight months pregnant. Maya gave birth to her son at the age of seventeen – she keeps her pregnancy a secret from her mother, as her brother tells her that otherwise she would be made to give up school. Luckily for Maya, her mother’s unconventional lifestyle meant that she was completely happy with her daughter’s decision not to marry the father of the baby.

Though family relationships form the undoubted core of this book, its heart are the descriptions of the world as seen through the eyes of a young child. Together with Maya we experience the shock of her brother seeing a drowned black man. We are being told that the narrator will not be treated by the dentist in Stamps, because he will treat whites only. Even though her grandmother lent him money a few years back so that he could keep his practice.

We experience the horror of a white man coming to tell black students graduating from school that while the white schools would get microscopes and scientific equipment, the black school would get a sports field. We share in Maya’s triumph as she becomes the first black streetcar driver in San Francisco.

In fact the brutal scenes I have recounted here again might give you the wrong impression of the book too. There are moments that are genuinely hilarious: like that time when Maya decides to get her drunken father back home from Mexico. one tiny problem – they’re in a car and she can’t drive… Or can she drive? After all, she thinks to herself, she has spent ages watching her Mum, and she’s very intelligent, so she must be able to…

I had no idea that I would like this book as much as I did – which leaves me in a bit of a pickle – as I wasn’t intending to be interested in reading the next parts of the autobiography… and now I’m seriously tempted.

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