Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“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.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Featured Poem: Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman
(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman

In terms of impact, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou might just be one of the most empowering poems ever written for the fairer sex. This work was originally published (and copyrighted) in Dr. Angelou’s 1978 autobiography, “Still I Rise.” With its flowing rhymes and straightforward wording—this poem is a breeze to read and a joy to be heard when read out loud.

Now, I’m not particularly well-versed when it comes to copyright laws, so I’m linking you guys to the full poem instead of posting it on this blog. (Read Phenomenal Woman in full here.)

In this poem, the writer attempts to explain her ‘inexplicable’ allure. First, to the “pretty women” puzzled by her magnetic charms, then to the men who are drawn to her like a “hive of honey bees.”

Strangely enough, she starts out with a strong disclaimer: “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” It’s an admission that sums up the confusion felt by the men and women who are drawn to the writer. Then, as if to drive the point even further, she lists a number of purposely vague reasons behind her appeal. In the first verse, she says:

 “It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.”

The rest of her explanations are just as nebulous—“the fire in my eyes, the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet…” and so on and so forth. Now, read carefully, dear reader and you’ll find that these are all qualities possessed by the everywoman. There are no race-restrictive, size-specific, or socioeconomically exclusive terms to be found here. Just a general description of your everyday woman. And therein lies the beauty of this poem. Rather than alienating a large chunk of its readers, the poem seeks to be inclusive. It revels in its inclusivity.

Another striking feature of this poem is the repetitive nature of a particular phrase. The words:

“I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

Figure beautifully at the end of every stanza. Beyond bridging the persona’s thought process, this acts as a celebration of her womanhood. The secret of the Phenomenal Woman is that she is her own woman. Her magnetic nature doesn’t lie in anything outside of the ordinary. She is phenomenal because she is herself.

Now, as far as analysis goes, that’s just us scratching the surface. While Phenomenal Woman remains an empowering and relevant piece of literature, to truly understand its impact and gravity, we need to delve into historical context.

There’s no denying that Maya Angelou was a very beautiful woman—physically, mentally, and emotionally. She was the complete package. But for an African-American girl growing up in the 1930s—a time when racist ideals and actions ran rampant in the Land of the Free—the standards of beauty excluded anything outside the ‘white.’

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou remembers a moment of insecurity when she was a child. She thought, “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?”

We’re not going to delve into how wrong, cruel, and painful it is for a child to have such thoughts—that’s for another discussion—but it’s important that we also look at the unconventional nature of Maya Angelou’s beauty. Unconventional for that period, at least. When she reached adulthood, Angelou’s brand of beauty continued to challenge the norms. Unlike the petite, fair-skinned lookers of the 1950s, Angelou grew to be a voluptuous, 6-foot-tall woman.

These days, we look up (for some, like myself, quite literally) to those modelesque proportions. But bear in mind that during that period, even Sylvia Plath who purportedly stood tall at 5’9”, felt some semblance of insecurity over her height.

Now, simply put, there was a period when Angelou struggled with accepting her looks and sexuality. And putting that struggle into perspective makes Phenomenal Woman even more poignant because it speaks of the writer’s acceptance and celebration of her unique and magnetic beauty. It’s speaks of her triumph in transcending the norms to embody what is truly beautiful in a woman.

All in all, this poem is a glorious, timeless, and inspirational work. It is poetry at its finest, folks.

 

On a Personal Note:

The first time I encountered the poem, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, it was through my mother’s copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. (Or was it “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul?”) Though only 16, and by no means a woman at that point, my teenage self was immensely moved by Dr. Angelou’s words. I immediately wrote down the poem in my high school journal, thinking, “Here is the type of woman I want to be.”

Now at 30, the poem remains an inspiration to me. It spans a page of every journal I’ve ever had. And every time I feel a pang of insecurity, I read the poem out loud and I tell myself—“Now, that’s the type of woman I ought to be.” Reading this poem never fails to put a smile on my face. Hopefully, it will have the same effect on you.