Paul's Reviews > I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
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's review
Feb 06, 11

bookshelves: fiction, banned-book

Now that I've researched, read, and reviewed a number of banned and challenged books, I'm no longer surprised that writing about sex, particularly from a young woman's point of view, whips up fear and suppression. And there's plenty of sex in Maya Angelou's childhood memoir, starting with her rape, at the age of 9, by her mother's live-in boyfriend, continuing with her description of her mother's life as a prostitute, her adventures in Mexico while her father visits a whorehouse, her teen-aged fear of being a lesbian, and her first self-initiated sexual encounter and subsequent pregnancy at the age of 16. But that's not all: she pokes fun at her grandmother's old-fashioned Arkansas Christianity and morality; she glorifies inner-city black lawlessness and crime; she lives in a junkyard for a month with other homeless children; she's scornful of white people. Worst of all from the censors' view, I suspect, is that she does not accept her place: she's smart, determined, and uppity. As far as Maya Angelou's own writing, I have to say that while she captured me throughout first two-thirds of the book, she lost me during the last third . . . I went from being absorbed and engaged to merely reading out of academic interest. From the time she runs away from her father in Los Angeles, the tone of her writing changes: detailed recollections of childhood, filled with fascinating detail, humor, and astute observations of character, suddenly stop, and Maya's memoir becomes compressed, rushed, and vague. Huge and important things happen afterward: her brother runs away from home; she becomes the first black streetcar employee in San Francisco; she decides to prove she is not a "pervert" (her own word) by asking a neighbor boy to have sex with her; she becomes pregnant and has a child -- but Maya covers all this in a hurry, almost as if she's writing about someone else. I don't understand why she put aside the momentum she'd built up during the first two-thirds of her memoir, and that makes me like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings a little less than I want to. Still, it's an important, ground-breaking book, and there are three very good reasons to read it: one, to tweak the censors' noses; two, to learn something of what it is to be a black girl in America; three, to hear the voice of a strong black woman who is not Oprah!
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