Why Does the Caged Bird Sing?



CURRENT BOOK:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Although I thought this was a re-read from junior high, I didn’t remember it at all.  While I didn’t relate to this autobiographical novel on the profound level that Oprah Winfrey did in her introduction, I did find it to be engaging.

The novel chronicle’s Angelou’s youth, mostly spent with her grandmother in the rural South before she returns to her divorced parents in California as a teenager.  There is a close bond between Angelou and her brother, as well as a bond with her grandmother who was the proprietor of a general store.  Her relationships with her parents, obviously, are not as strong, and she sees their weaknesses.  Much of the novel centers around her relationships with her family.

Racism is also a strong theme, and in the small town where she is raised by her grandmother, Angelou sees a sharp division between blacks and whites, but perhaps the most definitive example of racism she encounters is when the local white dentist refuses to treat her despite that it is an emergency, despite that her grandmother had loaned the dentist money in the past, and despite the fact that the nearest colored dentist is over 20 miles away.  She finds that things are different in larger cities outside the South, although opportunities for blacks and whites are still unequal.

The most traumatic event occurs when Angelou and her brother have gone to stay with their mother who is living in St. Louis at the time, and Angelou is raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  Although Angelou’s family supports her and the crime is successfully prosecuted, the incident haunts Angelou and greatly affects her feelings about sex to the point that when she does first engage in consensual sex as a teenager, being in love is not a factor for her.  Against the odds, she becomes pregnant as a result of the one casual encounter and gives birth to a son after concealing her condition for as long as possible.

Ultimately, Angelou overcomes racism when she perseveres despite being initially rejected because she is black, and she is hired as the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco.  After the action of the novel ends, Angelou ultimately went through a string of other jobs before gaining renown as a writer and poet.

So, why does the caged bird sing?  If there was a conversation about this in the novel, it didn’t stand out for me and I don’t recall it, and I feel like I missed something.  I think I remember in junior high or school the teacher said something about crying out for freedom.  On the other hand, until Angelou fights for the job on the streetcar, it seems like she accepts her circumstances as much as she does not like them, so I didn’t get the sense she was crying out for freedom.  She is restricted by her race, and it is unfair, but especially as a young girl she doesn’t seem to question that things are the way they are.

After finishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I thought I still had a few days before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would become available, so I stopped by the library yesterday to check out In the Time of the Butterflies since a digital copy was not available.  As I checked the library app on my phone, I saw that Harry Potter had become available.  Go figure.



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