Book Review: I know why the caged bird sings

Maya Angelou

As part of the #WECAN project’s book club, our next book to discuss is Maya Angelou’s famous book ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, which I heard about but never read.

If you ever wondered why the Black Lives Matter movement is kicking off, this book will tell you why. I knew about racism in America, particularly in the 1920s but this book describes more than that. The book describes a lived experience of racism and intimate feelings of a Black woman, girl in the large part of the book, and her growing up in a segregated Arkansas, then moving to St. Lous, then California and how she navigated more progressive states, differences between segregated Arkansas and more progressive St Louis and California.

What was striking for me the most was the audacity of white people (or white folks as Angelou reports her Black community was calling them) in deliberately not showing respect and calling Black women Ms as they would with a white woman and coming to a graduation ceremony and just taking a seat leaving a Black school official without a seat to seat on. Then the disgusting talk about developments in the nearby (much more developed and equipped) white school and the statement how white people will study STEM whilst Black people will do well in sports so that all little heads which were otherwise proud to graduate went down on their chest in sadness and destruction of dreams or hope that things will be better. I fully and deeply understood only through this book why some Black people do not like to be praised for their sports achievements; there is a disgraceful history of racism there implying that Black people are not fit to do science. What also angered me is the behaviour of white people otherwise known, by their fellow white people, as ‘powhitetrash’ or poor white trash who lived on the land of Maya Angelou’s grandmother, Ms (!) Henderson but still treated her badly by refusing to call her Ms and using her first name instead as well as provoking her to try to do what, presumably instigate trouble as Black lives were indeed expendable with plenty of examples in this book demonstrating the fear the Black community faced in crossing segregation borders.

A particularly poignant scene was these poor white girls coming to the store of Angelou’s grandmother wearing trashy clothes and unwashed and then provoking her by mocking her body posture; one of them even going on her hands with her dress falling at her neck revealing her genitals. Mind you, this was no child as the description of her genitals in the book reveals it was a senior teenager. From one point I was as angry as Angelou describes she was, that her grandmother just stood there and sang as if nothing was happening and then greeted them at the end with bye Miz whatever. But then I was also astonished by her stoicism with which she endured the insult because ultimately, had she reacted who knows what would happen to her and her family, and her store (I can imagine the store being burnt down because she offended the unwashed).

A very poignant story of racism as well as abuse from within the family (assault by mother’s boyfriend) and a very nicely written story of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s America. The book is as biographical and historical as it is a novel and certainly something everyone should read to develop empathy and understanding of why people act the way they do (e.g., why Black Lives Matter is kicking off, for example) and how racism causes harm. It is indeed something everyone should know but sadly, they don’t.

Thank you for reading.

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