Maya Angelou was challenged by her friend, author James Baldwin, and her editor, Robert Loomis, to write a autobiography that was simultaneously a piece of literature. Born was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Written in the years following the civil rights movement in America, this coming of age story focuses on Marguerite Ann Johnson, Maya Angelou’s name at birth, a young African American girl.
I absolutely adored this book for several reasons. It presented the themes of racism and trauma through a child’s eye. I had a genuine trust of the narrator. The characters were unforgettable and really authentic. The plot is unbelievable, especially considering this is an autobiography. She really accomplished her goal set out for her.
The story starts off in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. There Marguerite and her brother Bailey are staying with their paternal grandmother nicknamed Momma. Although the African American is fairly wealthy, as they own a general store in the “Black” part of town, they are not exempt from racism. From Momma being humiliated by little white kids revealing their pubes to her, to Marguerite being repetitively insulted by a white employer who continuously calls her Mary. They encounter racism at every corner of their lives. Later they have to hide Uncle Willie in their shop away from the Klux Klux Klan, and when Marguerite has a severe toothache the dentist refuses to see her purely because of her race.
“It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness.” (187)
Marguerite’s story takes us from Arkansas, to St.Louis, to California and even on a brief stint to Mexico. Although racism is the prevailing theme, trauma, family, sexuality and homelessness are other significant themes of the novel. That’s not to say that everything she lives through is atrocious. She does manage to drive a car which inspires her to persevere to become San Francisco’s first ever Black female streetcar driver, and she’s also encouraged to regain her voice after a traumatic event through books and communication. However, there are more negative than good things that happen to her.
Verdict: I am so glad to have read this book and would recommend anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to read this, to go find a copy of it immediately. This is probably my favourite novel about racism in America before the civil right movement. Really raw, authentic and brilliantly written.