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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Still relevant in 2017

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 “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou (Random House) 1969

In 1969, an autobiography hit book shelves across the nation, ushering topics such as racism, identity, sexual assault and literacy to the forefront of American culture.

Forty-eight years later, the words of Maya Angelou are as relevant today as they were the day they were published. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou's first autobiography. It would be the work that would raise her image from Ms. Calypso the dancer to the novelist, philosopher and civil rights activists that history has come to know.

Written at the end of the 1960’s, it’s easy to understand the meaning behind the autobiography. Ideas of identity and racism were televised on a weekly basis. Movements like the Civil Rights Movement and progressive ideas were taking a more mobile approach and taking the culture by storm.

Fast-forward to current events and society still struggles with the issues of the past. Though progress has been shown, the problem has never been eliminated.

Winning a spot on Time Magazine’s top 100 greatest novels written since 1923, Angelou’s novel still speaks about how to deal with a culture that often looks down on the different and the silent.

Set in the early 1900’s, the novel follows a young Marguerite from the age of 3 to 17 years old. She would often be called My or Maya by her older brother, Bailey, as they lived with their grandmother, Mamma, along with her crippled Uncle Willie in Stamps, Arkansas.

Overt racism by the town folks plagues the Angelou family from an early age. From little white girls showing their pubic hair and having the town run rampant with the Ku Klux Klan, Maya sees racism up close. 

Angelou tells how Mamma and the family hid Uncle Willy from the KKK as they raided farms in search for any African Americans.

As the book progresses, so does the tensions between whites and blacks. Each event feels as though it must take a side on the color spectrum. For example, a dentist refused to help Maya with her rotting tooth before he was extorted to do his job by Mamma saying that she helped him through the Great Depression.

African Americans in Stamps felt their victory come over the radio when Joe Louis’s championship winning fight over former titleholder Max Baer. It was played on every radio in town and they had to celebrate their victory in silence. Maya would quote that, for that night, “the black people were the strongest in the world.”

The tone of the novel would change when Maya and Bailey’s father would come back into their lives. He would take the two kids back to St. Louis, Missouri to their mother. This would prove to be the moment that Maya’s life would change forever.

At age 8, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.

Mr. Freeman would be taken to court and sentenced to prison even after Maya lied under oath. He would end up escaping and being murdered by an unknown assailant. She would become mute until she met a woman known as the aristocrat of Arkansas: Mrs. Bertha Flowers.

Flowers would coax a young Maya out of her shell by means of literacy and sense of self-identity. In a world that had otherwise turned their backs on her, it is by the grace of a southern white woman that saves Maya from self-destruction.

As racism tends to do when unchecked, it grew to means that scared Mamma so she sent Maya and Bailey to live in San Francisco with their mother. Attending George Washington High School, Maya began to flourish.

She would become the first black boxcar operator while attending school for dance and literacy. It would be her family that would toss her back to the salt of the Earth. One night, she would drive her drunk father, fight with his girlfriend and end up homeless for a few weeks.

The book ends with her last year of high school by getting pregnant by a boy that she barely knew. Maya would hide the pregnancy until her eighth month and end the novel by giving birth.

Some of the elements of the novel might seem dated due to their technological ages. Aside from those minor things, this book could be new on the book shelves and sell as it did back in ’69.

Ideas of race siding can be seen in the media almost on a monthly basis.

For example, the trial of OJ Simpson became whether or not black people or white people would win in the courts. Hell, the debate about Civil War monuments is ongoing in the news.

According to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, a woman is raped every 2 minutes in the United States. Only 9-32% will report their assault to the police while the remainder suffers in silence.

And as each generation comes and passes, the case of identity comes to a pinnacle for each person. Nobody wants to feel as a cog of a machine that they don’t want to be part of in the first place. It takes self-reliance and literacy to break the cycle of a lost identity.

Behind the novel, Maya writes her poem titled by the same name. It in, two of the lines she writes is, “I know why the caged bird beats his wing, Till its blood is red on the cruel bars”

Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is something that can be read by people of all ages and can teach something to anyone willing to listen.

If we listen closely, history and literature can be the most influential teachers.

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About the Author

Brandon King

Brandon King is a journalism student at OCCC, working towards becoming a professional writer....

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