I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Paperback, 1969

Call number




Bantam Books (1969), 246 pages


Author's memoir of growing up black in the 1930's and 1940's.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
This was a re-read for me and I enjoyed and appreciated it much more the second time round. Published in 1969 it is the first of a seven part autobiographical series. The book covers the first seventeen years of Maya’s life and has been described as autobiographical fiction, because there is far too much detail in the story telling (whole conversations are repeated verbatim) for it to be an accurate biography. She was over forty when she was encouraged to write her autobiography and while she based the story around the facts of her life she seems to have been more concerned about getting across what it felt like to be a black girl growing up in America before second world war and in this she has been very successful. My reading experience was one of looking over the shoulder of a person in an environment that I knew something about from other reading, but this biography filled out the picture. The book was a best seller in 1969 and garnered much critical acclaim.

Maya writes about her childhood in Stamps Arkansas, where segregation was a matter of course and then her later teen years in San Francisco, where racism was a little more subtle. She writes with painful honesty about a rape when she was eight years old, about her rose tinted vision of her father and to a certain extent her mother and about her own pregnancy at seventeen years old. Her naivety about sex is particularly well expressed and enables the reader to understand perfectly well how things happened to her the way they did. The book has important things to say about black female identity, racism, sex, religion, education and living conditions for black people in America in the 1930’s and these are assisted by the 40 year old authors reflections and story telling. This is an heartfelt autobiography dredged from the memories of an articulate and brave black woman written in a style that holds the readers attention. A deserved success and a book that feels as fresh to me as it did in the 1970’s. 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This is a celebrated memoir of a major contemporary American poet, Maya Angelou. The book is often found on recommendation lists and is often assigned in American high schools. It's her coming of age story, detailing Angelou's life up to seventeen years old. Her childhood was spent mostly in the segregated South, the Arkansas of the 1930s. As you might expect of a black girl growing up in those days, Angelou had some bitter stories to tell. There's how when working as a domestic at ten-years-old, her elderly employer tried to change her name to suit her--as you would a dog or horse. The young Maya didn't simply quit or insist on her given name, she retaliated by deliberately breaking the objects she knew the old woman found the most precious, reducing her to tears--and racial epithets. At her elementary school graduation, Maya was provoked to a murderous rage by the insensitive comments of a white man addressing the graduating class. Athletic aspirations? Sure! Just don't strive to be a scientist or poet if you're black his words implied. And not much later, she had to endure terrible pain, because the only dentist for miles around told her and her grandmother that he would rather put his hands into the mouth of a dog than a black person. So yes, Angelou had reason for bitterness, even hatred. Nevertheless, I found how she regarded race troubling. She said of whites that as a child she "couldn't force myself to think of them as people." Later as a teen in California, when she spent a month homeless living with other runaways, she claimed to have had an epiphany:

Odd that the homeless children, the silt of the war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man. After hunting down unbroken bottles with a white girl from Missouri, A Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for the rest of my life.

Note though how Angelou capitalized "Black" but put "white" in lowercase. That is used throughout the book--even after she claimed to have learned tolerance and respect for the whole human race.

It's not all that disturbed me about the book. There's a lot of frank sexual content, including a graphic description of her rape at eight years old. I think what caused disquiet there was how nonchalantly, even lyrically, Angelou described the assault. Part of the problem might be that although she would have been 41 at the time the book was published, she kept herself to the point of view of the young child who just didn't understand really what had been done to her. It made for unsettling reading.

Were there aspects of the book I liked, aspects of Angelou that I found admirable? Sure. I loved her story of how she persevered and became "hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars" as a teen not even yet out of high school. I loved the story of the grandmother who raised her, who managed to run a successful business and owned property during the Great Depression--in the segregated South despite being a black woman. And you certainly can see in the prose why Angelou is a celebrated poet. Much of the writing truly is beautiful. But no, I can't honestly say I liked this book--that's why my rating is so low.
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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Bantam Books, New York, 1969. A quick read. I enjoyed the book, but it lacked emotional punch. It seemed too light and disconnected. Angelou's prose is wonderful, however.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Audiobook performed by the author

This is the first memoir in a series of six which together formed Angelou’s autobiography. In this work she chronicles her childhood from about age three to age 17. She begins when she and her brother, Bailey Jr (one year her senior) were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after their parents divorced. In the home of Mrs Annie Henderson, Maya and Bailey learned their multiplication tables, their Bible studies, good manners, and proper English. They were also subjected to the Jim Crow laws of the Depression-era South, but witnessed the dignity and respect with which their grandmother and uncles conducted themselves in the town. World War II brings about changes in America and opportunities begin to open for women and minorities, but not without struggle.

This is a wonderfully told first-hand account of a young woman’s awakening and coming of age, as well as of the changes brought about in the country. Angelou writes with brutal honesty about her experiences and recounts with poetic grace the pitfalls and triumphs of her young life. There are some sections that are difficult to read, and I can only imagine how difficult there were to live through. For the most part, however, it is a wonderful testament to the love and dedication of strong parents (or parental figures) and the power of education to lift us up. She was an extraordinary woman, and this is an extraordinary memoir.

I am not always a fan of authors who read their own works for audiobooks. Angelou’s voice is low pitched and her pace is slow and deliberate. But she is able to suffuse the performance with emotion in such a way that I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job of it.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
One of those books I've been meaning to read FOREVER.

I think it would be fair to say that this is one of the most legendary autobiographies of all time, right? And if not, it certainly should be. It's definitely one of those books that so much has been said about that it's not as though I can add anything new to the conversation. But I will say that I found it fascinating how many worlds Angelou moves between here -- from her rural Southern upbringing to the cities she lived in during stays with her mother to the brief period she spent living in a junkyard with an enclave of other kids -- and she seems so remarkably self-possessed throughout. There is, of course, also the horrific rape she experiences as a child -- devastating both as the act itself, and then the heartbreaking bravery with which she tries to cover it up (as her rapist had threatened to kill her brother), even as she was bleeding and feverish and in incredible pain in the aftermath. It is, of course, an incredibly difficult section of the book to read. As are the following chapters, where it's clear that no one around her knows how to help her process what has happened to her, and in fact many lose patience with her for dwelling on it.

As painful as this book sometimes was, it was impossible to put down. I'm so glad I finally picked this book up.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
A very well known book by a very well known author & poet. This is book one of a series in which Angelou sets down her autobiography. The writing is very well done.

When you read this book, you'll find that the autobiographical details carefully reveal several strategies that enabled African-Americans at the time to deal with white people who felt that they were superior to blacks. Angelou grew up mainly in Arkansas (although was shuttled back and forth to St. Louis & California) in the pre-Civil Rights era, so outward resistance was not really a safe and sane option for African-Americans at the time. How she and her family dealt with white people, and what she learned by watching the examples of others seems to be the major focus in the novel, as well as the story of her life up to the time she had a child.

Now I know that people rave about the book, but to me it was just okay. The writing, as I noted, was very good, and I almost had the feeling that I was reading a novel. The major problem with reading any autobiography is that true memories are often filtered through the eyes of others -- and I often caught myself wondering things like "how could a kid that age actually remember what she felt at that particular time?"

Overall, just okay, but recommended.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
The beginning of her series of memoirs, this is a graceful and fascinating journey that serves as a story in itself, reading just so easily and completely (or nearly so) as a novel, if a slight bit more episodic. As a young girl growing up in stages between a small town and a city, immediate family and extended, Angelou's story is both heartbreaking and humorous at turns, but never melo-dramatic or self-pitying. In fact, a story that might easily have been told as a melo-dramatic affair instead comes across as smart, historically telling, and smoothly literary. Here, Angelou paints the story of her childhood innocence and adventures, and every page is worth exploring.

In conclusion, I have to say that this book is well worth the time for both young readers and adults, and should be entertaining for all. Without a doubt, women readers might relate more easily, but this is one of those few books that I could easily recommend to any reader at all, for varying reasons. I can't say whether the installments of her memoir that don't look back on her childhood will be quite so endearing or wonderful--specifically because the innocence and humor of her childhood are such wonderful hallmarks of this work--but I'll certainly try them.

Absolutely recommended.
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LibraryThing member tloeffler
A fascinating autobiography by a very talented woman, Maya Angelou takes us back as far as she can to her youth, from growing up with her grandmother in Arkansas, to moving to San Francisco with her mother when she was 13. Besides getting a picture of her life, we also get a picture of America in the 1930's, and see a very interesting contrast between how blacks were treated in the South as opposed to how they were treated on the West Coast. Angelou has a way of recounting the incidents in her life, good and bad, in a way that seems both passionate and dispassionate, if that's possible, and it ends up being a book difficult to put down. Excellent.… (more)
LibraryThing member StephLaymon
I quite appreciated getting to know the details of Maya Angelou's early life. The hardships endured in the time as a woman of color is something to be considered by those in this generation who know little about the real happenings of life and the necessity of one's power to endure.
This story was told in first person as experienced by young Maya Angelou herself, and adds nicely to even deeper understanding of how she perceived her life as a young girl.… (more)
LibraryThing member greathouse.28
As an autobiography, the chronicles of Maya Angelou's life story are heartbreaking. Following her journey, it is hard to believe a young girl could survive so many struggles and still remain unhardened. Her courage is inspiring.
LibraryThing member LauraR8
This book is about a little girl's point of view in her life. She has an older brother named Bailey. They both ended up in Arkansas together alone. This is like another version of Cinderella also. If you enjoyed this book, you should read "Jane Eyre" whichis like another version of Cinderella also! This book is slow, so you have to pull yourself through it. Some parts won't make sense, but you will still get the concept. Enjoy!… (more)
LibraryThing member eargent
Beautifully written book that covers Maya Angelou's life at the beginning.
LibraryThing member Greatrakes
I had this book on the shelf for ages, picked up through a book swap, but I put off reading it, fearing was a misery memoir, in fact it was a revelation. Maya Angelou is one of those rare writers who can remember what it's like to be a child and this is the world seen through the unsentimental eyes of a child, not the childhood world reinvented by an adult who wants give memories a varnish of grown-up sensibility.

The early life was more engaging and less rushed, the hardships of the world of Southern States blacks during the 1930s and 1940s is compellingly drawn, as is the attitude of young Maya Angelou to the world around her. Her world revolved around her Grandmother's store and her neighbours are acutely described. This is also a very intimate memoir of her family, and in particular of the older brother who meant everything to her. The sheer otherness of the whites, who rarely intruded into her early life, is beautifully described. This is a book about the triumph of the will.
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LibraryThing member bigfeet4me
I loved this book. I dont' know why it took me so many years to actually pick it up and read it. I had heard of it most of my life, but never got assigned it in school and had it on my own bookshelf for years. What an amazing life she had - and it wasn't an easy one. I really value Maya as a person. She has made wonderful contributions to this country! Read it now. :-)… (more)
LibraryThing member mathqueen
In this autobiographical work, Maya Angelou relates to readers rich details of a life full of segregation, poverty, and hope. The book begins with the abandonment of Angelou and her brother. As their story unfolds, each child experiences events that impact them in profound ways and serve to emphasize social and cultural implications of growing up African-American. One theme in the book is the role religion played in the lives of the southern community where Angelou lived with her grandmother. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of tent revivals, church services and scripture verses that appear to have influenced how Momma raised the children. After the tent revival description in particular, the people recounted how they were the lowly and poor of the Bible who would be in Heaven. It was their place to bear their burdens here on earth and God would reward them with deliverance. Just as God had brought the children of Israel safely through the Red Sea, so had God led an African-American chosen people through the waters of slavery to the safe ground of freedom (Wills, 2006). This makes some question the effects Christianity had on slavery and segregation. If African-Americans did not believe they needed to wait on God’s deliverance, would they have rebelled and saved themselves?
Library Implications: This award-winning book has many functions in the library setting. In its most basic use, reading this book gives young adults insight into the life of African-Americans from a southern and western cultural viewpoint. The life of the children as they bounce between family members is very incongruent and could lead to a study of regional reactions to African-Americans. Educational experiences of African-Americans and their white counterparts were very different, which could lead to a discussion of the effects of education for both groups. The role of African-Americans during World War II could also be researched, possibly utilizing video conferencing for interviews.
Wills,David W. (2006). African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project. Massachusetts: Amherst College.
Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. (2005). African American Religion, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920. North Carolina: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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LibraryThing member Angelic55blonde
I really liked this book. It's well written by a great other. It is definitely inspirational, especially to victims of abuse in any way. I really enjoyed reading the book.
LibraryThing member debnance
I’ve heard about this book for years, so I was happy to run across a copy of it in a recent bookbox. In honor of Black History Month, I decided to try it.I would say I liked it. I didn’t love it, but parts of it kept me reading along at a nice clip. It’s the story of a girl who considers herself ugly and is regarded as ugly by others. She is set aside by her mother and father and later her grandmother and uncle. She suffers from abuse by a step-parent when she was a very young girl. She is a member of the black population during the time that her people are tormented by her white peers. Yet she grows up strong and confident. Parts of the book are poetic and beautifully written.… (more)
LibraryThing member the_hag
The time frame for this part of her autobiography is the early 1930’s and 40’s. Angelou grew up in the segregated rural south, raised by her grandmother (along with her older brother). Most of her childhood was spent in a dirt-poor segregated town where her grandmother was a respected shop owner for the African-American community…though some of her youth was spent in St. Louis (with her mohter’s family) and even later California. As she gets older part of her “coming of age” were difficult, abusive and just pain hard to read. I read this in less than 24 hours…I laughed some, I cried some; for me, this was a very worthwhile read. This book like several others I’ve read lately is outside of my normal reading fare, but I’m working my way though the AMA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books (very slowly I might add). I will read the other four or five volumes of her autobiography as I find her writing style highly engaging and I really do enjoy challenging myself to read outside of my comfort zone, especially when the books are as well written and engaging as Caged Bird. I found that while the subject matter is difficult to read (as a white person never really having dealt with racism in the blatant and stunningly cruelty way portrayed here). Caged Bird is a thoroughly engaging, poingient, and a very worthwhile read. I give it five stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
Very well written autobiography covering an African- American's early years. My usual problems with biographies continue - where is the evidence??!!. Perhaps I would do better with the genre if I engaged fiction brain not factual, historical and scientific brain. Very, very good of the genre.
LibraryThing member njones2010
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou was not what I was expecting. It was interesting, but did not hold my attention like I thought it would.
This is Maya Angelou’s autobiography and it follows her as a young black girl growing up in the Deep South. The book started out slow but picked up towards the middle. Being that I am a young dark-skinned girl I could especially relate to Mrs. Angelou. She discusses feeling that she is not as pretty as the light skinned girls, or that her hair isn’t as straight. I have felt all of this at one point.
The book describes life in the south for blacks during the 1950s and 1960s, this seems like a common and often time overused topic in literature, but I like the view Mrs. Angelou took. She didn’t just focus on how she was mistreated because of her skin color, but she gives the reader a lot of background information, for example what her family life was like. She talked about what it was like to grow up with her grandmother, brother, and uncle. I enjoyed the personality she gave to each of her characters, this helped me to better relate to the story as a whole.
Although I feel like I could relate to the story, I feel that Mrs. Angelou never introduces a concrete plot. Instead she jumps around and discusses different topics. First she talks about her insecurities about her skin color, then her relationship with her mother, then the school she goes to. This caused me to get a little confused a different part of the books. Now as I reflect back, I realize that since it’s a autobiography about her life, it’s not something that will necessarily all make sense to the reader.
I think the overall theme of this book was perseverance. Mrs. Angleou is a great role model, one that young girls, like myself, can look up to and admire. She fearlessly tells her story and doesn’t try to make her life look easier than it was. At times there were some touchy subjects discussed but she plunges through them and really lets her readers know that where you come from doesn’t define you, you define yourself. Mrs. Angelou endured so much at a young age and I admire her for her courage and strength as both an African American and as a woman.
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LibraryThing member rikardh
A compelling book about Maya Angelou's life. This is the first book chronicling her early years. It's wonderfully and powerfully written. She's very honest in putting herself out there to be seen by the world.
LibraryThing member garrity
I heard Maya Angelo speak at my all-girls, Catholic high school a few years ago. They highlight women who have made a difference. I had not read any of her books before hearing her speak, but afterward, I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and it was like hearing her all over again. Maya's account of growing up in the South is honest and courageous.… (more)
LibraryThing member jasusc
Very well written with the integrity and heartfelt emotions needed to inspire a generation of writers.
LibraryThing member cestovatela
I'm sure it's sacriligious to say this, but I didn't really like this book. Angelou doesn't have anything new to say about growing up in the racist, poverty-stricken South and I find her attitude toward race frustrating.
LibraryThing member lanewillson
Being no means qualified is not enough to stop me from making a recommendation. Though millions had read Maya Angelou’s words by the time I heard of her in 1992, the political nature of my introduction to her was sadly reason enough to keep me from her work for another 21 years. Now to those whose knowledge of Dr. Angelou is far superior to mine I have a suggestion. Listen to her first acclaimed autobiography “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and though I don’t think there is another version, make sure you to the book read by Dr. Angelou herself.

Had I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” I would have enjoyed it, and been appreciative of Dr. Angelou’s great writing. But hearing her words come from her voice propelled by her heart left me moved and in awe. I know many more open hearts been moved by her words for decades, and although I’m slightly embarrassed by my ignorance, I am quite glad to have erased it.

I don’t recall exactly how I came to chose to read this book. I know I had read something James Baldwin had written about her, and that may have been all it took to search the library. The instant I heard her voice I could not let go of her story until I reached its end. About 8 or so hours in length, I listened in two sessions while home under the weather. Dr. Angelou’s writing did not cure me, but she certainly inspired me.

For quite some time I have believed that one of the proofs of Jesus divinity are African-American folk who have recognized His Love despite its introduction coming from the very same folks that introduced them to tyranny, pain, and slavery. The blending of her words and voice allowed me to hear that Love that has remained despite all the evil Dr. Angelou faced. It is what allowed her to offer grace, even though justice was needed. She never ceases her quest to justice, but it is not a prerequisite for her grace. I think this is in large part because even when she is holding a mirror allowing injustice to be seen, she never denies her sharing of the human condition – a need for grace. By not allowing the message of Love to be eclipsed by its often evil messenger, Dr. Angelou enables all of us, bearers of pain and creators alike, to see the truth that there is indeed grace to be had.
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