GA Book Club #8: ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou

Credit: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/maya-angelous-life-in-photos

February was a short month- I can’t quite believe how quickly it’s come and gone. I really felt the missing 2/3 days (along with it being a busy month generally) when it came to reading this months book for the Girls Against Book Club and it was the first time I’ve had to consider delaying the book club post.

But here we are- on time! I finished Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings only a few days ago but I know for sure that it taking me the best part of the month to read it had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself. In fact, I was looking for a spare moment all the time so I could read it. This autobiography is heartbreaking and genuinely shocking. It’s hard to believe that the events of the first 17 years of Angelou’s life really took place and harrowing to hear her describe them first-hand. But the fact that this incredible woman has been through so much really just makes the things she achieved in this part of her life and later on even more incredible and admirable.

Maya Angelou was an American author, poet, singer, dancer and civil rights activist- clearly a woman of many talents. She was born in 1928 and died in 2014 and has lived through some of the most significant changes for both women and people of colour. She has championed the rights of these two groups of people all her life and is a women I truly look up to and this autobiography only increased the admiration I have for her.

As mentioned, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings deals with the first 17 years of Angelou’s life and in these years it seems that she went through more difficulties than most people do in their whole life. Many of these difficulties were imposed on her because of her race and/or her gender. As always, I’m going to discuss some of the most interesting, shocking and touching parts of the book although it’s going to be seriously hard to narrow them down as I have bookmarked quite a few pages…

A particularly harrowing moment towards the beginning of the text is Angelou’s remembrance of her uncle having to hide in a bin from the KKK. An ex-sherrif warns her ‘Momma’ (grandma) of this by telling her that ‘the boys’ will be coming to town. Angelou depicts the sense of fear she felt at hearing this statement as a child but also her bewilderment that those who were capable of such cruelty and hatred were referred to so nonchalantly. The really harrowing thing about this memory is that for me, Maya Angelou is a modern woman and the fact that she lived and can remember when the KKK were still casually terrorising people of colour really emphasises the fact that this didn’t occur so long ago. It’s easy to distance ourselves from past events but hearing them described first-hand makes them seem very real. It’s a reminder of the necessity of intersectional feminism as we consider how astoundingly differently white woman and people of colour were treated in the lifetime of Angelou and many other people who are still alive today and have these memories.

Undoubtedly though, the most disturbing, shocking and upsetting part of this text is when Marguerite (as Angelou describes her younger self in the novel) is sexually assaulted and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. I don’t want to discuss this section of the text too much as I feel that no one should try and tell this story but Angelou herself. However I feel that it is important to mention how truly upsetting this part of the text is as the reader sees how emotionally and physically affected Marguerite becomes by this experience, something that she never really forgets or seems to recover from throughout her childhood.

Another part of the novel I want to discuss is Marguerite’s visit to the house of a white woman who calls her a different name to her own because ‘That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on.’ The sense of ultimatum in this statement seems to symbolise how white people during this period, and often still today, attempt to rewrite the narratives of people of colour, defining them by their terms and not their own. Marguerite’s decision to ‘accidentally’ drop her favourite casserole dish and smash it really made me smile (and laugh) and it felt like such an empowering moment in the text.

There are many sections of the text that seem to summarise Angelou’s experience of a child but the one that I think does so the best is this- ‘It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.’ Not only is Marguerite going through all the inevitable changes and difficulties of childhood but she is doing so as a black girl in Southern America. Everything seems to be more difficult for her because of this. The fact that she grew up to be such a successful woman despite these difficulties (and maybe because of the determination she gained through these experiences) is truly inspiring.

Another great quote from the novel is this: ‘The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same that that she is caught in the tripartite of crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.’  Again, this seems to highlight the importance of intersectional feminism as it portrays how deeper the struggles go for WOC compared to white women, especially those who are navigating their childhood.

I really can’t recommend this autobiography enough. Even if you’re not a big fan of autobiography (its not usually my genre of choice either) this one is not only engaging but important. Maya Angelou is ‘a truly phenomenal woman’ as Barack Obama describes her, as is printed on the cover of my copy, and I feel like we all owe it to her to read this book to see just how true this statement is.

For the month of March the Girls Against Book Club will be reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This will be the second book we’ve read by Adichie (we read We Should All Be Feminists in September) but the first work of fiction. It follows the story of three Nigerian teenagers who, as they grow up, follow different paths, with one moving to America, one to London and the final remaining in Nigeria. It deals with themes of love, race and identity and I’m hoping it will be a really interesting and enlightening read, as We Should All Be Feminists was.

I’d love it if you joined us in reading Americanaand if you do, be sure to join our GoodReads group to stay updated on where we’re up to and join in on the discussion. If you’d rather contribute your views privately/anonymously feel free to send us an email at girlsagainstbookclub@gmail.com. Any views contributed will be, with your permission, included in next months post which will go up on Sunday 1st April.

I hope you’ll join us in reading this novel and I’ll see you back here in April!

Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).