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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

This week, Literally had our monthly book club meeting to discuss our September pick, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Admittedly, I have never read a single book by Dr. Angelou, and feel I've done myself quite the service by reading her first memoir. Written in 1969, Angelou uses her beautifully poetic style of prose to describe her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, a town still feeling the effects of slavery, and stuck in the clutches of racism. We were both alarmed and amazed at how sadly relevant Angelou's descriptions of racism are in the book, and at how so much has changed, and yet so little has changed for Black people in America.

Caged Bird is an autobiography, but we agreed that it read like a fiction book, as Angelou is so adept at bringing the setting, the characters and the emotion of her story to life. In fact, many reviewers categorize her book as "autobiographical fiction" because of the literary techniques Angelou uses in her story development. The result of her lived experience paired with her brilliant writing is a stunning read, flowing gracefully from explorations of childhood trauma, to hilarious depictions of her days in church, to introspective musings on her own awareness. It's certainly unlike any autobiography I've read before, and Angelou's writing takes the cake for me.

It is Angelou's strong sense of resilience in the face of painful childhood trauma, in living through racism and segregation, and of being traded back and forth between her separated parents and her grandmother (Momma), that shines through as a major theme in the book. Her love for Shakespeare and Poe, for reading and education put our childhood appreciation for The Babysitters Club to shame. She is also very clear about the role of strong women in her life: they helped shape her into who she eventually became.

I will leave you with the beautiful (and so sad it makes me cry every time I read it!) poem, Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, that we began our meeting with this week. Dunbar, born in 1872 to freed slaves in Kentucky, is regarded as one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. It's easy to draw comparisons between the below poem and Dr. Angelou's own poem, Caged Bird; Dunbar's poem served as inspiration for Angelou's work.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   

For he must fly back to his perch and cling   

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

Next week I'll announce our October book club pick! In the meantime, happy reading and stay safe!


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