A few years ago I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of Dr, Maya Angelou’s Autobiography series. I did it during a year where I read only woman authors. I was familiar with Dr. Angelou; how could I not be. She is a legend after all. Unfortunately for me, I had avoided the Caged Bird because I am not usually too into autobiographies. Except, Dr. Maya Dr. Angelou presents her life in a fictional retelling that is both beautiful and gripping. It ended up being one of my favorite books of the year, if not of all time. Dr. Angelou writes in a way that is poetic and characters that are real. As an autobiography, realness may be expected, but the real surprise comes from the honest and openness with which she presents her life. It is hard not to fall in love with it. I wish I was more fluent in writing styles to say exactly what it is about her writing that makes it so unique, but it is unlike anyone else I’ve read.
I have always wanted to continue this series, but for so long all I’ve ever read (for pleasure) is via audiobooks. I tried so hard to find these on audio–audible, CD, and even tape. Unfortunately, the 6th entry in the series is the only other book on audio, and that’s abridged. Therefore, I am doing the unprecedented and actually reading the physical book. I do not want to be deprived of this series just because it isn’t on audio. I am nearly 30; I have plenty of time to read these if I set my mind to it. It may take me 40 minutes to read 10 pages of a mass market paperback. These are short books. What’s more, I hope this will improve my reading speeds (though I read a good bit in middle and high school and yet I am still slow).
I will finish this book. I am forcing myself to read at least one chapter a day/night. These are at times a page or two long, so it really is the bare minimum. However, it is rare that I don’t read multiple chapter, and even when I don’t, it is only my own poor time management skills that prevent me. Every time I start this book, I am amazed at how quickly she can pull me in, even in only a page or two. That is the power of Dr. Maya Dr. Angelou’s writing. Lastly, I hope to use this to prove to myself I can read physical books. There are plenty of other great stories I don’t read because of their not being on audio.
I am writing this the same day as my introduction because I didn’t want to write about this if I wasn’t going to get invested first. I am about 35 pages in, maybe 20%, and it is amazing. I am happy that I finally re-immersed myself into Dr. Angelou’s works in part because it is so great, but also because it reassures me that my initial praise of the Caged Bird was justified. I mentioned before the realism, and that is all to present. Dr. Angelou walks us through her transition to adulthood, warts and all. This as much a story about survival as it is about learning. I suppose the question then becomes how can I learn from Dr. Angelou’s life. I may be a decade older, but I still have so much to learn.
I am more than half way now through the novel (57%). I am loving this book. I actually read well over my personal requirement over the weekend as I relaxed at a nice cottage in northern Ontario. Dr. Maya Angelou is just a gem. Her writing still stands out as unlike anyone else I’ve read. There are moments I am infuriated and others I just laugh out load at the absurdity. What’s more, I am learning so much more about Dr. Angelou. There is something about her persona that made her almost godlike or angelic (angel is in her name), but she takes us to even the darkest parts of her younger years. She was a good women who did what she could to survive and take care of her son, but she also had prejudices and did some questionable things. Of course, Dr. Angelou never explicitly says she regrets these things. For all intents and purposes this isn’t her writing it, this is like any other novel with the protagonist giving their thoughts, as they see it. It provides a level of realness that is gripping but also inspiring. It is nice to see people we look up to are human; they too have made mistakes. The road to their success isn’t what we may think.
Up to this point, I have discussed everything I love about Maya Angelou and her autobiographies. The back of my copy says “Maya Angelou writes like an angel who has paid her dues in hell,” and I think this perfectly conveys the tone of the novel. Her writings are beautiful and moving. As I have said before, it is comforting to know that Angelou hasn’t lived a perfect life. She is someone who a lot of people look up to, myself included, and she shows how life is a process of mistakes and learning. All we can ever do is our best, admitting our mistakes along the way.
I am very happy I read this novel for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but I do wish it was a more complete story. This is a collection of moments in Angelou’s life in young adulthood. Therefore, I wouldn’t expect it to be a complete history, but the structure is a bit disconcerting at times, jumping from one moment to the next sometimes without much connection. This is particularly abrupt near the end where it feels she is building to a big life lesson to conclude with. Then she concludes that bit of her life, and continues into another small bit of her life before she concludes the story.
It all just felt so abrupt. I wish the it was a more cohesive story overall; perhaps what we have would have worked better in the form of short stories. Nevertheless, the novel is still great at what it does: presenting us with a period of her life as a young mother. 4.25/5 stars
My favorite Quotes
The more I read, the more I find lines I find myself wanting to make note of for whatever reason, and I thought this would be the perfect place to talk about or at least list them.
I hated their stupidity, but more than that I hated being underestimated. If they only knew, they could strip buck naked and do the Sassy Sue wiggle and I would continue to sit, with my legs crossed, sipping the Dubonnet.Page 41, 3rd paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
Dr. Angelou has recently met a lesbian couple who invited her over to their place. While there, she quickly came to regret the visit, and made it clear she was not any way gay. Nevertheless, the couple began to kiss intimately to get a rise out of her, igniting this hilarious response.
He melted into the darker darkness. The following year I heard that he had blown his brains out with a shotgun on the day of his father’s funeral.Page 71, final paragraph chapter 16., Mass Paperback Edition
Dr. Angelou meets with an old acquaintance who goes on an on about wanting to leave home but having to take care of his father, never letting Dr. Angelou talk. When she finally bids him farewell, things turned quickly turned morbid in a way that just caught me off Dr. guard because of how matter of fact it was.
But I too had some training–that is, “Never let white folks know what you really think. If you’re sad, laugh. If you’re bleeding inside, dance.”Page 86, 3rd paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
This may be the most profound quote I read. It speaks to what is like to be black, let alone a black woman, during this time. Everything will be used against you, and you have no choice but to be cautious. This has an uncanny similarity to Dr. Angelous poem, When I Think About My Self. This is probably my favorite poem, not just of hers (of which I’ve read only a few). Please, watch the clip below as she performs it.
She talks about an older women who has to let her employer talk down to her because it’s what she has to do to to get buy. Beyond on that, its about the sacrifices one has to make and the indignities you may have to endure in life and how strong a person that makes you. Now, I say that, but let me be clear, I am probably missing or misrepresenting parts of it. You can probably see similarities to the quote I’ve mentioned here. The quote even adds a level of weight to this poem too. I always saw it as Dr. Angelou writing about women who have to endure this, never realizing she was one of those women. Of course, it makes the tears all the more understandable.
Things had arranged themselves in my favor at last.Page 87, 6th paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
I hesitated to include this quote because it is seemingly small and unimportant. Sure, it speaks to a life of hardship which is all too accurate. What surprised me when I read it was that I couldn’t help but do a double take. Dr. Angelou has a way of getting things done and working with what she is given that almost gives the illusion of success. I mean, don’t get me wrong, everything she does seems to become a success, but not because it’s what she wanted. Rather, she makes the most of what she is given in a way that is inspiring and admirable.
He’s a man. He’s got a job and his health and strength. Some people have to make it through life with less.Page 89, 1st paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
I may be giving this more weight than was intended, but I felt like there was a lot to unpack here. Dr. Angelou’s grandmother (who raised her) is talking to her about Dr. Angelou’s brother, who Dr. Angelou feels needs to strive for more than just being a waiter. Overall, it seems to speak to the contentment some people have in life, contentment that Dr. Angelou just doesn’t have. It is hard to figure out if Mother (the name given to her grandmother) is speaking regretfully or a matter of fact, but it definitely feels like she’s targeting men in particular in a way that amused me.
People always said Uncle Sam would spend a thousand dollars to get you if you stole a three-cent stamp from him. He was more revengeful than God.Page 92, 1st paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
There isn’t much to unpack here. I thought this was cute and funny. Except, it’s also very poignant even today. With recent reporting by Propublica about the IRS targeting the poor more often then the rich seemingly because they’re easier to take down. The government is flawed in many ways with backward approaches to resolving issues.
Hell, I wouldn’t have recognized Stalin if he’d been in my class when I was fourteen. Literally, all white folks still looked alike to me: pale and similar.Page 94, 1st paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
This is equally amusing as it is concerning. Here she is discussing her attempt to apply to the army. She was so sure she would get in, but she was worried they may find out that she has a son. Come to find out, the only thing they cared about was her being apart of socialist group. They accused her of being a traitor of her country.
The only way I could be in the business was to give due service for the money paid. I decided privately that I would make each trick (each man) happy and forget the unbearable loneliness that sent him out in the rain searching for love.Page 139, 1st paragraph, Mass Paperback Edition
This was her right as she naively entered into the prostitution business. She was driven by a manipulative older man who convinced her this was so they could be together, and she in turn convinced herself that what she was doing was honorable and for the good of the man. I thought this was an interesting way of describing it because I think she was trying to convey her own nativity during this time in her life.