Social commentary and think pieces

27 March 2020

Book review | I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou


I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a classic. As Maya Angelou's memoir it serves the purpose of capturing her childhood and teenage experiences living in both Arkansas and San Francisco during the 1930's and 1940's. She writes eloquently of her life enduring extreme racism, her family relationships, sexual violence and the importance of christianity in her life.

I found it an interesting read, though at times shocking. 
Her descriptions of how she feels after being raped and sexually assaulted by her Mother's boyfriend, Mr Freeman, at just eight years old were truly eye opening. She keeps what happened to her as secret, carrying her experience and her guilt as a burden, afraid that if she tells anyone her brother will be murdered, like Mr Freeman told her he would. 
Her feeling that her family would be ashamed of her for what happened - thinking she wants to appear "womanish" - rather than shame towards Mr Freeman was heartbreaking, and though the event occurred in 1930's southern America, I think that feeling still stands prominent today.

Maya Angelou captures her emotions surrounding her rape perfectly. She shows it not to be as black and white as some seemed to think - and still do think - it is.
At eight years old Maya Angelou was  clearly an unhappy child. She feels second best to her handsome and charismatic brother Bailey and after the sudden reappearance of her parents, whom she had so long thought of to be as good as dead to her, she begins to move away from her home in Arkansas and to San Francisco with her emotionally uninvolved parents. When her Mother's boyfriend Mr Freeman rapes her, she is too young to understand the extremity of it and though she doesn't enjoy it, she does enjoy feeling close to someone and having the attention of being "loved", which as an outcast, she has so long pined for.

Though this was all in 1930's Arkansas, I was shocked by the lack of understanding surrounding mental health.
After her rape, Maya is given a period of weeks to recover before she is expected to return to playing with the other children, as normal. Bearing in mind that she receives no form of therapy or help with her mental state and her experience is scarcely mentioned after the court case, I found it shockingly ignorant that someone would expect anyone, let alone an eight year old, to deal with such a horrible incident in such a black and white way, and in such a small amount of time, and to come out unscarred.

Maya is particularly bright for her age and has been moved up a year because of this. But, as a modern reader I was surprised as to where the gaps in her knowledge lay. 
At Sixteen Maya begins to question her sexuality, asking herself if she is a lesbian. Though these questions don't come out of an attraction to the same sex. Rather, she wonders if she is queer simply because she is broader shouldered than her female peers, and has much larger feet. When she becomes pregnant, though panicked at the prospect of becoming a parent at just sixteen, she finds relief in believing that the ability to carry children confirms her heterosexuality. Though times were different - at this point its the late 1940's, early 1950's - I was shocked at how such untrue and generalising stereotypes could be so prominent at that time as to be received as the truth to someone as old as sixteen.

Its a fiercely interesting read and one I would recommend. Maya Angelou draws on experiences that are so common, though scarcely experienced at all, or at least not to the same degree for those who are white skinned. 
Its so important to understand the history and experiences of others as well as yourself in order to understand the world around you. Broadening your thinking to the lives of others will only do you good. I urge you to read this book.

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