It feels weird to review words that should be enshrined in stone—for Maya Angelou is less author and more elemental force, her teachings as endless as earth, fire, and wind. But she penned books that were published—and thus reviewable—so here we are.
Published in 1969, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is Maya’s earliest autobiographical work, the first in a series of seven. She opens with a memory from her childhood, perched on a pew in a crowded church, dressed in her Sunday best, and wishing desperately for something. To trigger tears in the first few pages, before readers have barely sifted through a paragraph or two, is near impossible. But Maya plunges you into the heart and body of the story—a tiny black girl named Marguerite, or ‘Maya’: little Maya knows she has value, and wants others to see it, too, so underneath her skin, she assumes she must be white.
Racism runs deep, wider than the Mississippi, and thumps hard through the veins of this book. Aged three and four, Maya and her brother are placed on a train and sent from California to Arkansas, tagged with the words ‘To Whom It May Concern’; a journey Maya later learns was traversed by many black children. In Arkansas, her paternal grandmother and disabled uncle provide Maya with some stability. Her grandmother is quite the role model, wielding an unusual amount of power in the small town. With few words, she shows Maya she knows how to play the game.
Maya’s childhood is often terrifying: brushes with white cops, paedophiles, and the KKK. There are heart-stopping moments that creep under your skin. But as her life continues, we see how words—not a wish to be different—give her power, value, and self-acceptance.
As an author, Maya crafts similes and metaphors like she invented them. Her social commentary is astute and powerful. My only criticism is the book’s pacing. But this is an autobiography, and life—or uneven highs and lows, they just happen.