I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is another book that I first read in middle school. In the years since, many of the details of Angelou’s remarkable memoir had slipped from my mind, but I remembered reading it as a formative experience. With Maya Angelou’s recent passing, I revisited much of her poetry, and I checked her autobiography out of the library. It took a while to get to me, considering many other people seemed to have the same idea, but a few weeks ago I got it at last. Normally, I can read a book of the length of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in a matter of hours, and it is not uncommon for me to devour a long awaited book on the bus rides of the same day I retrieve it from the library. Instead, Angelou’s memoir spent most of the time staring at me from the top of my book stack, somehow impossible to start.
This morning, I finally convinced myself to start my reread, and as I had remembered, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an amazing piece of writing that drew me in from the beginning and brought me into a world that I can only experience though writing. Angelou’s writing captures the feelings and history that she lived through and allows the readers of her memoir to find a greater understanding of the world and experiences that she came from. She has an incredible capacity to draw out emotions with her writing. As I spent the better part of the day pouring over the autobiography in chunks, I found myself connecting bits of the story of Angelou’s early life to other things that I had read, and being impressed not only with the writing and clarity of her story, but also with how well it fit into the greater narrative of an era.
This is not a piece of work that I would want to make a class read quickly. I think that instead, I would stretch the study of the memoir over a series of weeks, interspersed with other stories, novels, articles, and bits of history. I would tie together the thoughts that I had while reading it this time, allowing the beautiful, touching, and personal words of an amazing poet link together the events of a few decades of history and literature. I am still a bit at a loss at some of the feelings and reactions that I have to this book, and I think that they will sort themselves out with time, but I know that this is an extremely important book to read.
Maya Angelou’s incredible talent with words and beautiful way of creating stories that draw out the emotions of her readers will be sorely missed. I look forward to revisiting her poems and other works for many years to come.
Reading Level: maybe late middle school, definitely high school and above
Pair With: Depression and WWII era literature (especially about the South and CA)