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A Bildungsroman but not your typical one

A Bildungsroman but not your typical one

Book review

I know why the caged bird sings – Maya Angelou

Recommended for: Arts and Culture (FaSoS)

I know why the caged bird sings follows the life of Marguerite, first called Maya by her brother, from her early childhood in Stamps, Arkansas to her adolescence in San Francisco. The first in a series of seven autobiographical works, the caged bird demonstrates how closely intertwined Angelou’s personal, political and literary lives are. Long after the years depicted in this book Angelou would go on to be a well-known poet and civil rights activist and the roots of this spirit are discernable in her account of her childhood. Maya at age three, sent along with her brother to live with her grandmother after a messy parental separation, already displays the sense of justice and love for learning without which her later career would be unthinkable. The book’s title, too, is telling. Taken from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the original caged bird is the slave who sings to express the pain of existence under oppression. The entire book builds on this theme of finely balancing the beauty of a singing bird with the harshness of the cage of oppression.

Angelou spends little time highlighting what could be considered major life event. Maya’s primary school graduation, a toothache, helping out in her grandmother’s store and moving back in with her mother are given equal page time. With a childlike sense of timelessness Angelou portrays all events as equally major. In front of this backdrop of childhood events the people in Maya’s life are all emphasized to symbolic grandeur. Her brother is an object of admiration, her grandmother symbolizes security, and the far-away mother is the epitome of glamour for young Maya. These characters, and others who are less positive, guide Maya as she grows into a woman. This happens too soon when she finds herself pregnant at sixteen.

The realities of growing up Black in 1930s segregation-era Arkansas stand in stark contrast to the dreamlike quality conveyed through Angelou’s narrative style. Telling of her school graduation, young Maya’s account focuses on the pretty dress her grandmother sews for the ceremony with scant commentary on the fact that she is graduating with only a primary school diploma so that she can begin earning money as a maid. Her grandmother’s store is at once a source of wonderment and a supply of secretly eaten candy for Maya and her brother but it is also the only general store open to Black customers in her rural town.

The coexistence of these seemingly contradictory narratives shows how tangible a racist society is to people who live in it without racial privilege. The caged bird is a Bildungsroman but not your typical one. We all remember the novels we read in high school that supposedly represented the all-encompassing experience of growing up (think The Catcher in the Rye or Great Expectations). At university it is easy to continue holding the belief that it is possible to provide a narrative that holds true for all people. It is crucial, however, to acknowledge that the account of a white, Anglo-Saxon young man is not representative of all human experiences. I know why the caged bird sings is an American narrative about growing up but this time about growing up on the wrong side of society.  With Angelou’s accessible prose, often heartwarming insights into a young girl’s life and a critical look at a society that places countless obstacles in her path, her book is an equally enjoyable and unsettling, thought-provoking and important read. Reading only within a canonical demographic leaves out most of human experience. When studying culture, it is imperative to gain an understanding of all facets of humanity, not just the white male perspective.

Sophie Silverstein

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