Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Year of publication: 1969
Found: On a book club reading list
Pages/Read time: 304, three days

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic admiration.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the first of seven autobiographical novels Maya Angelou wrote over the course of her incredible life. Taking us from her very earliest memories to the birth of her first child, Angelou weaves the threads of her history and great force of character together with a deft and calm touch. Her control of descriptive control denotes no exaggeration. Not that Angelou’s life requires any manner of exaggeration to convince you of the writer’s almost tangible moral fibre.

It could be speculated that Angelou utilised the publication of her coming-of-age story to highlight issues of racism, rape, literacy and identity politics at the time of her writing. But I cannot hold with this. This, I believe, puts an all-too-political spin on an author who speaks from the page as if she were seated in front of you. Angelou is recounting the formation of her young self, her family and her community. It is not contrived, not political, it is personal account of life and at the same time a universal memoir to life with and beyond suffering.

The prose is at once humorous and confronting but never sentimental. I found myself racing through hysterical descriptions of family members and folk around town then suddenly edging cautiously and queasily through descriptions of sexual assault and parental neglect. The sheer gift of writing this author has is remarkable, both for it’s unconventional use of language and the perspectives given to it’s subject matter. As the white person I don’t feel comfortable commenting further on this monumental work. Anything I have to say about the power, conversational yet commanding prose or gentle guidance of the author would ultimately seem trite. I am only in a position to say that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is critical reading for white allies and feminists like me (I want to say for everyone, but I am not as naive as to claim that).

If you have never heard of, or never thought enough of this author to read her work, I implore you find a copy of this book.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2017 by in biography, Classics, Non-Fiction, USA and tagged , , , .

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