I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Published 1969

American autobiography/memoir

Challenges: The Classics Club, Back to the ClassicsUnread Books Project 


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a coming of age story for Marguerite Johnson, a black girl growing up during the 1930s and 40s.  She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but when her parents divorced, she and her older brother Bailey were sent to live with their grandmother, an independent and self-sufficient woman living in a little segregated town, in Arkansas. 

Maya (a nickname) and Bailey were intellectual, and their grandmother fed them a healthy diet of literature. They loved to read and often escaped through books. Maya said she "fell in love with Shakespeare." 

In Arkansas, a wiser, older woman, Mrs. Flowers, befriended Maya. Maya liked her because she showed her it was ok to be yourself. She told Maya that 

words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning. 

She encouraged Maya to read books aloud and "in as many different ways as possible," to embolden her to find her voice. Maya had stopped talking after a horrific crime was committed against her when she was only eight-years old. Mrs. Flowers also gave her a book of poems to memorize and recite. I love how Maya described the joy of reading. She said:

To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of a stranger, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, 'It is a far, far better thing to do, than I have ever done...' tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.

Maya said Mrs. Flowers "had given [her] her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve [her] all [her] life: books." 💜 

But aside from the joy of reading, there were severe issues to confront in the story. Racism was one of many. Growing up in a segregated town, Maya said she knew "whites were to be dreaded." She said they were not referred to as people because they were "see-through, had small feet, and walked on their heels." They were "folks, not people," "pale creatures," "aliens," the "un-life."

In fact, whites were referred to as "powhitetrash." It was easy to understand why Maya could write so sharply about the white race. When she was ten, she had a painful experience with white kids mocking her grandmother. She also had to learn "female training" while serving a white woman for a short time, though this woman humiliated and disrespected Maya terribly that Maya "found a masterful way to be released from her service." 

I think a most heartbreaking moment for Maya was when a white dentist refused to care for her while she suffered a painful toothache; he adamantly refused to see black patients. She described how this dentist treated them and how he spoke to Maya's grandmother. It was disheartening!

At twelve-years old, Maya graduated co-valedictorian of her eighth grade class. The guest speaker was a white politician who talked only about how the boys would go on to be great athletes. Aside from only talking about the boys, Maya felt like her graduation was for nothing. If one wasn't athletic enough to be an athlete, he could be a farmer or a handyman; and girls...they could be a maid or washer woman. 

Nothing else mattered anymore. Not "Invictus," "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." Not the valedictory address, "To be or not to be."

Hadn't he heard the whitefolks? We couldn't be, so the question was a waste of time.

And later, another prejudiced incident occurred, this time to Bailey, which prompted him to ask questions like what colored people did to white people in the first place, and "...why do they hate us so much?" 

This caused Maya's grandmother to take Maya and Bailey to their mother, who was now living in San Francisco. Their mother, Viviane, was a self-reliant, self-determined worldly woman, and San Francisco was a culture shock. Maya said that San Franciscans did not think racism existed in their city, but evidently, it did. 

For a short time she went to stay with her father and his girlfriend, in Los Angeles. That did not turn out well, and Maya ended up on the street for a month, though she learned a few valuable life lessons, including tolerance. 

Then it was back to San Francisco to live with her mother. At sixteen, Maya was determined to do something that no other black woman had done before. Her mother's advice was this:
That's what you want to do? Then nothing beats a trial but a failure. Give it everything you've got. I've told you many times, "Can't do is like Don't Care." Neither of them have a home. 

Maya said "it was the most positive encouragement [she] could have hoped for." What Maya went through next was a most disturbing series of events, which I had to continue reminding myself that this was the 1940s. I was very proud of her for her persistence because it paid off. 

Before her memoir ended, at age seventeen, she experienced another major life change, albeit, after a very unexpected decision!

Now I don't want to share anymore because I have already shared too much. If you do decide to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, just be forewarned of heavy topics on race, child rape, and sexual curiosity.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is such a popular book and already an American classic. At times it is provoking, yet also absorbing and inspiring. While there are trials, they are not without victory. Graceful and seamless, it is a story that will stay with every reader long after he or she is done reading it. 

Maya Angelou 1928 - 2014


  1. Thanks for the great review. I've been putting off reading this, as I knew it was about racism, and thought it would be very distressing, but it does sound like a story of overcoming racism, so I shall certainly move it up the TBR pile. I remember reading, recently I thought, that Maya Angelou had died - I can't believe it was four years ago!

    1. True, it was not a light read and the issue of child rape was probably the most disturbing. But Angelou wrote about it in a palatable method, from the perspective of a child, which makes it really heartbreaking. But it is an important book for Americans to read. Angelou died in 2014, which was actually more than four years ago. I believe she was giving a medal by Obama while he was in office, and soon after that she passed away.

  2. When I read this, I was put off by a lot of the main character's decisions, especially towards the end.It's not one I'll ever re-read, I don't think. I'm currently reading "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" which covers similar racial themes (it's the story of a woman who was a little girl when the Civil War ended, and it follows her until the 1960s...I think. So far I'm just round the turn out of the century. It's far more interesting!

    1. I think it helps to recognize that she did not have parents who protected her. Her parents both made bad decisions in their own lives. She did not always have a good mentor to guide her. Can we totally judge her for her poor decision making? It's hard to say.

      I will mention that what upset me more about this book (that I did not discuss) was the racial element. Since I cannot help but apply it to my own life, I think about the racism that Maya endured in the 40s, and it made me indignant. But then when I consider that whites today are condemned to be racist forever, even in their thoughts, regardless of how they live out their lives, this really bothered me.

      The people in the Maya's story would not find a comfortable place in America today bc our attitudes about race are so different from the last century. They could not live out those attitudes in 2021 America.

      Nonetheless, whites are clumped together with people of the 1940s, without distinction at all. And I know it is wrong. I know why racism is kept alive in America, but it is unjust. And some people see it, but others want to continue living like we are living in Maya's world. Even white people. As long as we continue down this road, we will fail as a people. We will live in disunity. We will never unite. It will force distrust, segregation, and more hatred, which will grow and grow. Definitely we are creating a regression of ideas, attitudes, and progress.

      Anyway, that's what I took away from this book most of all, and why I think people should read it and compare Maya's world with today's world. You cannot help but proclaim, "Thank God we are above THAT."

    2. P.S. Stephen, I will definitely take a look at The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Thanks.

    3. BTW, who is your author bc there seem to be two editions by two different authors...

    4. The author is Ernest Gaines, who is also known for "A Lesson Before Dying" and "A Gathering of Old Men".

      I absolutely agree with you on the thoughts about racism. I was born in the eighties, went to a mixed-raced church, grew up in mix-raced school, watched television shows with predominately black actors (Cosby, Family Matters, Jeffersons), but I didn't regard them as being about 'Black People': they weren't other. But from high school on I noticed people aggressively promoting this Other tribalism, this black/white nonsense, sorting themselves into groups voluntarily and building the walls up high. They're even higher today, thanks to the internet allowing people to create walled communities. (Well, walled communities for Approved Minorities, anyway.) Since moving back to my hometown from college, I've come to realize that there's genuine culture of poverty, an ideology of learned helplessness and of blaming everything on someone else. It's absolutely poisonous, and it's pervasive in some subcultures. And you're right -- contemporary white liberals only help fan the flames by continuing to buy books that blame everything on their awful, awful ancestors. Reading books like these reminds me of how self-defeating and ungrateful moderns really are, how much of this drama exists in their heads. (Math is racist!, that sort of thing.)

  3. I really should reread this book. I remember finding it thought-provoking when I read it about 15 years ago, but I bet I would appreciate it even more now.

    1. Yes, it is provocative for certain. The topic is heavy, but the writing style is pleasant.

  4. Hi Ruth, interesting to read your review & the comments - this isn't a book that's as well known here. Are you still in California?? Hope you have a great reading year. X

    1. That would make sense. This is definitely an American classic.

      Yes, we are still here in Cali, and nothings happening. My husband stopped looking for new work through the holiday and the election bc it has gotten really, really unruly here in America.

  5. I've had this memoir on my radar for a long time, and you make it sound very fascinating and confronting. Looks like a book with plenty of quote-worthy material.

    1. Yes, I would say it was quote worthy. Difficult, but eye-opening.