I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 Autobiography of African American author and poet Maya Angelou. It is the first in a seven-volume series and deals with her life between the ages of three to seventeen.

The book is thematic, eloquent and profound. It deals with issues such as identity, rape, trauma and racism. As well as being a prodigiously talented author and poet Maya was also a composer, singer, actor, journalist and educator and worked in the civil rights movement with such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X. 

It is an uniquely brilliant book. It is a ming vase, a first edition of a Shakespeare play, a Michelangelo statue or a Van Gogh painting.

Maya has said that when writing this book she would get up at five in the morning in her hotel room, remove pictures from the walls, lie on the bed with a bottle of sherry and a pack of cards and write on a yellow notepad with the bible and Roget’s Thesaurus next to her.

The title comes from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the caged bird is symbolic of the chained slave struggling for freedom.

The book was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970, pipped at the post by Joyce Carole Oates ‘Them’. The Caged Bird Sings remained on the New York Times best seller list for two years, and is considered an American literary classic. It is often studied at high schools and universities. It remains as relevant today as the day it was writte, and in my view far better remembered and more widely read than ‘Them’.  

The book basically tells the story of Maya who in the book is referred to as Margarite. Maya (Margarite) was sent to the southern town of Stamps, Arkansas, with her brother Bailey to live with her paternal grandmother Moma and her Uncle Willie when she was three. Moma ran the local shop at the heart of the black community and had even lent money to some of the white folk like the dentist during the depression.

The book deals with a lot of the racism she and the black community faced in Stamps, such as the dentist refusing to treat her when her tooth was rotten, saying he would rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. Also a white speaker at her eighth-grade graduation telling her and the other graduates that there are limited jobs open to them, or Uncle Willie hiding under a barrel full of potatoes and vegetables as the Ku Klux Klan rode into town.

The book also deals with the rape of Maya by her mother’s boyfriend and her subsequent elective mutism until Ms. Bertha Flowers encourages her through books to speak again.

Maya eventually goes back to her mother in San Francisco and gets pregnant, hiding the pregnancy from her parents until the end of the book. She gives birth when she is 17.

The power of words and their ability to transform is a theme through-out the book. Angelou recited her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and sales of A Caged Bird rose by 600 percent. Now Trump is in the ascendancy and racism is on the rise we need her voice and voices of those like her, more than ever.

Not everyone wants to listen though — America has a large reactionary, ultra-Christian, red-necked white demographic, and many of them began to try and censor this book from high school reading lists in 1983. It has been challenged in 15 U.S. states and removed from reading lists and library shelves. Ostensibly this was because of the childhood rape, but I think it is much more about what it has to say about equality and dignity and race and the power with which it says it.

In a Barnes and Noble review of this book they conclude by saying’ Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern American classic that will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read’. – please people continue to read and read this book because the times they need a changing.

So what did book club think of this book?

We started off book club a bit differently this week. I thought because Maya Angelou was so eloquent and voice played such a large role in the story it would be appropriate to hear from her as well as discuss her writing. So, to start the meeting I played an eight minute montage of her that I had seen on Facebook just the past week. The link is below but you may need Facebook to see it. It was incredibly moving.

After the montage Anne-Marie mentioned the worlds that Clinton had said at Maya Angelou’s funeral when he said, ‘ She was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God, then he decided he wanted it back’.

Anne-Marie said her book was ground-breaking. It was written at a time when black Americans really had no rights and were treated very badly. She said it was sad that the book did not win a major award at the time it was written and it should have got more recognition (ed it was not until 2013 nearly 50 years after it was written that it got a National Book Foundation Award). She said although black people should not have to teach white people how to view them, this book did that. It made black people impossible to dehumanize them and it gave them a voice.

Madeleine loved the book so much she is reading the entire series of seven books and is already well into the second book. She said the message of Maya is that you should always go forward and never give up. She said it was interesting that in the 1960’s no one really wanted to buy the European rights to the book but Virago brought them for hardly anything printed 6,000 copies and sold them all in a couple of weeks. It soon became a best seller and has been selling well ever since. Madeleine described Maya as a revolutionary who knew how to tell a story.

Jan particularly loved listing to the audio book which was read by Maya and said she listened to it while she was walking, but sometimes she just had to sit down and really hear the words as they were so moving. She didn’t want it to end and felt that it ended on a cliff hanger, you wanted to find out what happened to her son.

Jan wondered if given the sexual trauma both as a child and as a teen that Maya had gone through whether she ever found the sexual act enjoyable. Madeleine said Maya did fall in love with someone called Curley later but he went back to his wife. Anne-Marie said in her later years Maya had a much younger lover.

We all agreed she had the most amazing resilience. I said I had to do a video for a friends 50th and I ended it with a quote from Angelou where she said a friend should be ‘a rainbow to someone’s cloud’. Despite all the trials and tribulations in her life she wanted to bring happiness to others.

Madeleine felt that Moma her grandmother was her rock and gave her her sense of stability. Anne-Marie agreed and said Moma was her emotional core. Jan said she provided a good role model particularly with incidents like taking Maya to the dentist.

Diana said the prose in the book was amazing and it really showed the strength and importance of words and the power of literature. Yulia agreed and said she had a natural talent and was unique. She had an ability to observe, reflect and describe things from different angles. Anne-Marie said that she had a wiliness to describe experiences that were shameful. It was a gift she could talk about them and give strength to others. As Madeleine said though, she didn’t dwell on things or pity herself, she just told her story and it moved along at a pace.

One thing we all noticed was a lack of any positive male role model as Madeleine said, ‘men don’t feature too well’. As Anne-Marie pointed out the black adults of that time would have lived through a horrific life experience themselves with the legacy of Jim Crow, their parenting skills were probably influenced by the environment they grew up in.

Jan wondered what had happened to her brother Bailey – she thought he had become a merchant marine. As Yulia said Maya had a good role model in her grandmother but Bailey had no good male role model. Jan wondered as Maya had so many talents and was so exceptional, if he ever felt over shadowed by her.

We also wondered what would have happened to Maya if her parents had stayed together and had she not suffered the trauma she did. Would she have done so much?

Diana said it was interesting the role that religion played. On the one hand it gave them the will to persevere but on the other hand it told them to endure and kept them downtrodden in a way. Anne-Marie said that black American’s at that time just didn’t have options most jobs were agricultural and religion was an important life raft. Yulia said that religion was meant to give them hope, but noted how Maya was punished in church for misbehaving, church was strict and prescribed and just another hierarchy like the racial hierarchy they lived in.

Jan loved the way that Maya said she wrote her books by going to a hotel. Jan said when she was writing her thesis she also went away and that going somewhere special made it easier to write.

Yulia and Diana both pointed out that her writing style changes throughout the book. Yulia said you feel her growing up and you feel her happiness with friends.

Diana pointed out her ability to make acute observations like how she said the music of the sinners was very similar to the music of the revivalists in the church.

Caroline found the book extremely moving . She had the good fortune to see Maya Angelou at a NAACP event in 1990 and had also seen her make the speech at Clinton’s inauguration.

As Madeleine said – this is a book that is powerful from page one.

We concluded the meeting by listening to Maya’s poem ‘I Rise’, which is bellow on you tube.

As Maya said – be a rainbow to someone’s cloud.

Maya Angelou videos

Montage

And So I Rise

Bill Clinton eulogy

Future Books

The next books we are reading are

5 October American Dirt by Jennie Cummins 

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

2 November – Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – Be warned this one is sexually explicit!

Other information

HWC kick off

A reminder that the Hampstead Women’s Club will be holding its kick off meeting on Zoom on the 30 September at 1:30pm – 3pm. This is open to members and non-members who might want to join the club for more information contact hospitality@hwcinlondon.co.uk. There will be quizzes, prizes and a whole heap of fun.

Covid Testing

I know a lot of people are struggling to get tests from the government website  you can get them privately from Zoom Doc, here https://zoomdoc.selz.com/ for £129 They provide Same day delivery of Covid-19 PCR tests across London, next day across the UK & instant access to video based GPs results are available in 1 -2 days.

Creative writing Classes

Lisa strongly recommends the creative writing classes at Imperial. She met Stuti there, another book club member and says that the classes are very enjoyable. More information can be found here

http://www.imperial.ac.uk/evening-classes/autumn-spring-courses/writing/

The vegan kind

My Charlotte has gone Vegan – and we found this great supermarket that delivers. It even has Bond Beef Burgers. You can get the app from the ap store or the website is at

Lock down art

Have a look at the photos of lock down art at the National Portrait Gallery they are incredibly moving.

https://www.npg.org.uk/hold-still/

Fire Tech courses for kids

My daughter’s have done a couple of these courses and love them. If you are looking for something to keep your kids entertained virtually this half term but teach them at the same time try Fire Tech.

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