“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” Review

Alanna LaDeaux, Howler Staff Writer


Maya Angelou has written many wonderful pieces over the years from “Still I Rise” to “On the Pulse of the Morning” she has proven that she is a literary genius. One piece that displays her talents is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” This autobiographical narrative is filled with the first 16 years of Angelou’s life.

“the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood.”

Her story is told in about four parts. In the beginning, her fancy-living parents send her and her brother to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother and uncle. This part of the book is slow, but necessary to set the scene for the rest of the book. To sum it up, Maya and her brother, Bailey, become closer and consider themselves to be best friends. They help their grandmother (who they would soon call Momma) with her store that she owns. This part is also slow, but it’s a pivotal moment in the book. The ideas and lifestyle that Maya is introduced to by her grandmother stick with her throughout the book. This part seems long, but as you’re flipping the pages of the book you realize it’s a small fraction of the story. It ends with Maya and her brother’s dad coming to pick them up in Stamps and take them to California, or as Maya would explain it, heaven. 

Maya is stunned by her fathers charm. She often compares him to Bailey; a good-looking man. However, because of this, she knew she’d have nothing in common with him. Maya has forever been unable to relate to her family members in several ways, especially when it comes to looks. Her father ended up not taking them to California but instead took them to St. Louis, Missouri to meet their mother. From the beginning, Maya’s reservations about going with her father are very clear, and they’re further noticeable when it comes to meeting her mother. However, since Bailey agreed to meet her, so did Maya.

I wouldn’t say that their dad showing up and taking them was the turning point of the book, but it was definitely a pivotal moment. There is a clear change of pace for Maya. She goes from this ready-to-learn, always making herself better, little girl, to a reserved person with her nose stuck in a book. 

When they go to St. Louis Maya can see a shift in Bailey. She started seeing this shift when they’re father came to pick them up and she continues to see it in St. Louis. Seeing their mother was a big thing for both Maya and Bailey. Maya states that she was a very beautiful woman. Again, she doesn’t fit in. This would just be the beginning of the trauma that St, Louis holds.

“A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”

When living in St. Louis, Maya would soon endure the trauma of rape by her mothers lover, Mr. Freeman. The aching sense of being unwanted haunts Maya in the early stages of her growth. In Mr. Freeman’s early attacks, Maya confused his abuse with love. She was unable to wrap her mind around the fact that she was being attacked. Soon after Mr. Freeman is tried for rape and is sentenced to one year and one day. However, he is bailed out the very day of the court hearing. Shortly following this, Freeman is murdered. After this, Maya becomes frightened of words and speaking in general. However, with the help of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, the women who would introduce her to poetry, she begins to find her voice again.

Angelou’s memoir beautifully displays the emotional arc that she overcomes. It traces Maya’s growth from an inferiority complex to confidence. Tracing her story as a 2-year-old being sent to her grandmother via train to a 16-year-old giving birth to her son. This book not only shows how Angelou has broken down societal structures but how she has succeeded in altering literary structures. 

Reading this book at 17, around the same age Angelou was when she gave birth, it’s crazy to realize how much she went through at a young age. This is a good read for high school students because it teaches how to overcome obstacles through grit and determination. Maya Angelou proves this is possible through her literary accomplishments.