Maya Angelou

I know why the caged bird sings
 
Sacred Fire
This statement as much as any other defines the uniquely expansive and knowing vision of Maya Angelou. In her works of poetry, drama, and memoir, she describes the imperfections and perversions of humanity_men, women, black, white_with an unrelenting and sometimes jarring candor. But that candor is leavened by an unusually strong desire to comprehend the worst acts of the people around her and find a way for hope and love to survive in spite of it all. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the beautifully written and brutally honest chronicle of Angelou’s life from her arrival in Stamp, Arkansas, at age three to the birth of her only child in San Francisco, at age sixteen. In between those two events, Angelou provides an unforgettable memoir of growing up black in the 1930s and 1940s in a tiny southern town in Arkansas.

Angelou vividly describes the everyday indignities pressed on blacks in her small town, whether by the condescending white women who shortened her name to Mary because her real name, Marguerite, took too long to say, or by the cruel white dentist who refused to treat her because … . my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than a nigger’s. She also faced horror and brutality at the hands of her own people_she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight years old and later witnessed his murder at the hands of her uncles, a trauma that sent her into a shell of silence for years. Nevertheless, she emphasizes the positive things she learned from the "rainbows" in the black community of her youth that helped her survive and keep her hopes alive: her grandmother, Momma, who owned a general store and remained a pillar despite the struggles of being a black woman in a segregated and racist southern town; the Holy Rollers of the revivalist black church, who used coded language to attack the racist system they lived under; and Mrs.Bertha Flowers, the aristocratic black woman who brought her back from her shell of silence by introducing her to a love of literature, language, and recitation.

Her mastery of language and storytelling allows Angelou to record the incidents that shaped and troubled her, while also giving insight into the larger social and political tensions of the 1930s. She explains both the worst aspects of her youth and the frequent moments of exhilaration with drama and vigor; it’s in the carefully described details and minor incidents that her childhood world is brought to life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970 and remains an immensely popular book among people worldwide to this day for its honest and hopeful portrait of a woman finding the strength to overcome any adversity, of a caged bird who found the means to fly. Angelou has written four follow_up autobiographical works: Gather Together in My Name, Singin Swinginand Getting Merry Like Christmas, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, and Heart of a Woman.

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