It feels strange calling this a review. Partly because Angelou is recounting her own experiences, but also because her way of telling those stories just swept me away along a rollercoaster of emotions. I guess it’s hard to review something that moves you so deeply.
Angelou’s autobiography covers seven volumes; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings being the first installment. She recounts experiences from her early childhood – living with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas, developing relationships with her (separated) parents who lived in different parts of California, and her education.
Be warned: there are some truly harrowing memories narrated, things that should not happen to anyone, let alone a child. These experiences alone are moving for a reader, but the effect it evidently had on Angelou’s childhood, her interactions with others, her understanding of herself, I found to be heartbreaking.
There’s also something so powerful in ‘witnessing’ aspects of American society at that time through a child’s perspective. To show the realisation in young childhood that she will be treated differently because she’s a girl and because she’s black. It somehow makes the kind of injustices and violence experienced (even today) that much more infuriating because alongside those, Angelou recalls those universal aspects of growing up, like her dreams for the future and her understanding of her sexuality. It brings home how unjust it is that she was taught to limit her own ambitions because ‘society’ wouldn’t let her go to certain places or do certain things. There are many moments in this installment where I was so angered by how she and her family and friends were treated.
Throughout all that though, Angelou weaves in a very distinct humour, like a witty aside about a quirky aspect of her childhood behaviour or a funny event. This not only reflects that life is full of ‘significant’ moments, positive and negative, and they can be recalled with equal intensity, but it makes her ‘voice’ so vivid. It feels like she’s sitting next to you, telling you these things.
My favourite aspect was definitely the final few chapters. To keep this as brief and spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say, Angelou’s determination is nothing short of inspiring.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is one of those books that people talk and talk about, and now I understand why. I’m only sorry that I haven’t read it sooner.
It’s emotional, moving, empowering, and beautifully written, and I could not recommend it enough that you pick it up and read it.