Writer’s Wednesday: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

i know why the caged bird singsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Maya Angelou’s six volume autobiography. It is the haunting and thought-provoking story of Angelou’s childhood in the American South during the 1930’s. It is a story of resilience, of being in love with a world that at times is unbearably cruel. It is the story of separation between black and white people, and how this affects a young girl. It is a story of justice and injustice, of poverty and hope, of achievement and celebration thereof, and I greatly recommend it.

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges as a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.

The title, by the way, is inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African-American poet, specifically the third stanza of his poem “Sympathy”:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.


During the summer we went barefoot, except on Sunday, and we learned to resole our shoes when they ‘gave out,’ as Momma used to say. The Depression must have hit the white section of Stamps with cyclonic impact, but it seeped into the Black area slowly, like a thief with misgivings. The country had been in the throes of the Depression for two years before the Negroes in Stamps knew it. I think that everyone thought that the Depression like everything else, was for the white-folks, so it had nothing to do with them. Our people had lived off the land and counted on cotton-picking and hoeing and chopping seasons to bring in the cash needed to buy shoes, clothes, books and light farm equipment. It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.

In the first weeks my family accepted my behavior as a post-rape, post-hospital affliction. (Neither the term nor the experience was mentioned in Grandmother’s house, where Bailey and I were again staying.) They understood that I could talk to Bailey, but to no one else.
Then came the last visit from the visiting nurse, and the doctor said I was healed. That meant that I should be back on the sidewalks playing handball or enjoying the games I had been given when I was sick. When I refused to be the child the knew and accepted me to be, I was called impudent and my muteness sullenness.

‘Now no one is going to make you talk – possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.’ That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
‘Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.

As I ate she began the first of what we later called ‘my lessons in living.’ She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.

They basked in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden. Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly – mostly – let them have their whiteness. It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell. No one would have admitted that the Christian and charitable people were happy to think of their oppressors’ turning forever on the Devil’s spite over the flames of fire and brimstone.
But that was what the Bible said and it didn’t make mistakes. ‘Ain’t it said somewhere in there that “before one word of this changes, heaven and earth shall fall away?” Folks going to get what they deserved.’

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