Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : Perceiving the world like a child

“Angelou has the remarkable ability to think and write like a child, and to remember every single detail of her own childhood, every emotion, every drop of rain,” writes Megha K.

I picked up this book on a rainy evening, unaware of the pleasurable journey that lay ahead.

The story begins with 3-year old Angelou and her 4-year old brother. As Angelou describes the lives of southern African Americans during the cotton picking season, it is truly hard to imagine their plight and difficulties they had to endure to sustain livelihood. Her description of her Momma, her uncle, the store, and the church are innocent as a child; but also contain a certain maturity.

Even as a child, little Angelou is fully aware of her surroundings; the prejudice against the dark-skinned and the hostility of her people towards the white folks, some of which she herself shares. As you venture deeper into her childhood, you realize she is just a normal little kid; who is mischievous, scared of unknown things, shares affection with her brother, and despises fat ugly old men who eat up the ‘best’ at dinner.

It is always painful to read about a young 8-year old being abused, more so when the incident occurs in her own house and the abuser is someone she considers to be father-like. The fears of the frightened little girl can almost be felt, as if it is happening with you. Her guilt of being part of the ‘crime’ rather than a victim displays the innocence and fragile mind of a child.

A major part of the book is based on Angelou’s childhood incidents. This in many ways reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. In both novels the main protagonist is a young American girl reflecting on the world of inequalities and prejudices in one’s simple and uncorrupted words.

Each chapter introduces a new person in Angelou’s childhood life who adds a new dimension to her world. There is never a dull moment in the book, which mostly is a collection of events from Angelou’s younger days. Simple yet captivating, the reading is effortless, like a flowing river. Angelou has the remarkable ability to think and write as a child, to perceive the world like a child, and to remember every single detail of her own childhood, every emotion, every drop of rain.

While reading the book, I realised that it’s mostly when you are down and out, when life’s filled with melancholy and misery despite the efforts, when you are despised for no fault for yours, that you hear the sacred bell of the Church. Truly, morose and despair bring out the God within people. Through short glimpses into her youth, she paints a larger picture of the way of life of her people during the Racial segregation in the United States.

The effects of war on a city, its people and the society at large are captured best in 14 year old Angelou’s words. How things change, when the oppressed become the masters. How unconsciously people forget where they came from once they have moved to a better place, and their complete disregard to others going down the same lane. But no matter how drastically the city of San Francisco changed from outside, the prejudices and fear lived on within the people.

The confusions and tentativeness adolescence brings with it are well portrayed. Anyone who is passing through or has passed through such phase in life can easily relate to it in the novel. Her struggle to find her individuality, her boldness and determination, which finally enable her into becoming the first African American conductor on San Francisco streetcars, do not fail to inspire.

Such is the beauty of Angelou’s writing that the essence of her relationship with her grandmother, mother, brother and father will stay on in your mind days after you finish the novel.

Source: Makers

Megha is from Bengaluru and presently works at Hyderabad. Literature and creative writing has been her passion since childhood. Presently, she writes for a national e-news outlet, hixic.com, and an international travel and lifestyle website, transportermagazine.com.

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