I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” when I was sixteen- a junior in high school- and read about Maya Angelou’s life up to the same age. Our world’s were so dramatically different from one another but I was still able to empathize in many ways with 16 year old Maya Angelou. The experience of reading this book left me a awe of her accomplishments and so full of respect of the richness and beauty of her words.
That book turned my world upside down. I wanted to know why my life experiences hadn’t shown me what Maya Angelou’s had- why she suffered, and how she came away from her suffering with strength and fortitude and wisdom that floored me. At the end of the book, Maya is 17 years old and trying very hard to graduate high school. She becomes pregnant and shields this fact for almost her entire pregnancy in order to graduate. The novel closes with her giving birth to her son, Guy. At the same age, the greatest issues and problems in my life seemed almost trivial in comparison.
There are quite a few more books in her series of autobiographies. I read one other- her as an young adult trying to raise her stubborn teenage son. Her works opened a world to mainstream white America about life as a black woman, living both here and abroad. I’m sure that if I read the book again now I’d get a broader understanding of Angelou’s life and work, but at the age of 16 I can still remember realizing what a tiny person I am in this world that the experiences and details of her life seemed out of a book, foreign and strange, to me. But so very crucially important to bring into the American narrative to highlight and legitimize this lifestyle.
She passed away at the end of May this year at the age of 86. I want to ask her two very simple questions- how? and, why?
How did she do it? She continued to learn and grow, share her experiences, and create art her entire life. Was there ever a point where she had enough? Which leads me to my next question: Why did she keep going? What was guiding her? Especially when she had enough success and stability to be able to settle down quietly later in life. The poem, Still I Rise speaks to these questions, especially at 1:20 and on.
I’ll leave you all with this line of poetry- the inspiration for the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.