There are some books that are so much a part of our culture that there is no denying their larger cultural impact.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by the late writer, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, was published in 1969. The most recent edition, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, was published in 2009.
The book is an autobiography and the story of Angelou’s childhood. Born to a poor African American family, Maya and her brother Bailey spend the first years of life living with their grandmother in a small town in the American south. Though she is dealing with abandonment issues and the pervasive prejudice of the time (which unfortunately still exists today), Maya still finds joy and pleasure in learning.
Her life is forever altered when she is assaulted by a much older man after returning to her mother in St. Louis. Later, as a teenager who by then is living in San Fransisco, she discovers the power of literature and the strength that comes when you learn to love yourself.
Why I have never read this book, I don’t know. But I am glad I did.
Her experience as a girl is both universal and powerfully specific to the era she grew up in. Finding confidence, especially after a hard girlhood, sometimes only occurs long after we have grown up. Looking back at my own teenage years, I wish I would have had the ability to develop that same self-belief that Angelou was able to manifest at that same age. Perhaps some things might have turned out differently.
I can only imagine the emotional digging it took to excavate the crap from her youth and put it into a narrative that we can all find something in common. It takes courage to do that. When it is done well (as she obviously has accomplished), it opens the door for readers to possibly do the same with their own lives and emotional baggage.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is available wherever books are sold.