I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies (cbr12bingo #FreshStart), covering her early childhood up to the age of 16/17. The memoir is set in 1932- 1944, primarily in Stamps, Arkansas, with a brief interlude in St Louis Missouri, and ending with high school San Francisco.
Angelou’s autobiography begins with her parents’ divorce when she is 3 years old and her only sibling, brother Bailey, is 4 years old. They are sent by train from Long Beach, California, to small town Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. Angelou’s book details growing up in the segregated south, and it is the specificity of the racism she experiences that has stuck with me- the dentist who would take a loan from Angelou’s grandmother but refuses to treat her granddaughter in an emergency; the use of first names and titles (Ms/Mrs) as signifiers of race and class; the tension and almost ever present threat of violence from white residents, etc.
My grandfather, who turns 91 today, is roughly the same age as Angelou would have been, so I read this with an eye to imagining his childhood in the ‘30s and ‘40s. There are clearly many differences between their experiences- he was a white boy growing up in rural Western Canada, she was a black girl growing up in the rural American south- but some of the experiences from that time were universal (burning coal, corner stores and penny candy, the delay in the Depression reaching the rural interior, etc.). I wish I could recommend it to him but the events in the St Louis section aren’t something he would be comfortable with.
This book has a lot of heavy events and is not always an easy read. Despite that (or because of it?) I also think that it bears rereading- I just finished but the online plot summaries suggest I missed a bunch of the implied events outside the text and in my rush I know that I missed a lot of the beauty Angelou’s language.