I finished this book a while ago with the intention of writing about it, but put it off because I felt whatever I had to write couldn’t do it justice (not that any of my other posts were pieces of art but ya know). My focus is typically non-fiction, so writing about an autobiography is very out of my comfort zone. Add the fact that it’s written by Maya Angelou and I am just at a loss for words. Literally. Because I’ve had writer’s block for the past 2 weeks. Amazing. But anyways, regardless of my inadequacy, I have forced myself back in front of a word document to talk about the book that gave me too many feels.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is an autobiography about Angelou’s early life. Taking place between the ages of 3 to 16, Angelou tells the story of her upbringing from the traditional South, to the fast paced St. Louise, and finally the spirited San Francisco. While she talks about the complexity of her family life, Angelou’s primary focus is revealing what it’s like to grow up as a Black female and becoming aware of her place within her existence.
Each city that she lives in features an event that awakens her self-awareness. When she was in Arkansas, she was first made aware of what it meant to be Black. She mentions an event where a Black man is tortured and killed because he slept with a white woman. When she was in St. Louise she was assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend. Then in San Francisco where she gets a job as a street car conductor after consistently being denied.
We all know that our race and gender manipulates our role in society. Some become aware of their existence earlier than others because of the obstacles they have faced. I believe that Angelou always knew that being a Black female meant something. A part that stood out to me is when she talks about her peers. How after she got her job and was surrounded other people her age who had not gone through the same things and had very different concerns and thoughts on their mind did she realize she was on a different path then they were and was no longer ignorant to the social struggles of her world. The overarching theme can be summed up by this passage:
“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.”
As a colored female of Hispanic and Asian descent, I have gone through my own struggles that are because of my race and gender, but in no way can I say that I know what it means to be a Black female in our society. Because of pieces of literature such as this we are granted the ability to peek into another’s existence and see what their struggles are while simultaneously remembering we can never fully know what it means to be them. This book isn’t a revelation, but a powerful and beautiful reminder.
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens her throat.”
“Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment. In later years they change faces, places and maybe races, tactics, intensities and goals, but beneath those penetrable masks they wear forever the stocking-capped faces of childhood.”
“It was a shame to be a Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.”
“He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and death.”
“Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.”