I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou's first venture into autobiography, is, like the author herself, packed with promise. Like most autobiography, the story line follows the author's memories, which are colored by photos, letters, and other people's interpretations and repetitions of past events. The conversations are obviously padded or wholly fictionalized to fill in what people probably said at the time. The Maya character, sometimes endowed with more sophistication and understanding than is appropriate to her young age, reflects a blend of memory and the adult author's hindsight.
Taking her text from a line that echoes through Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy," Angelou selects an evocative title linked to images of powerlessness and defeat, but resonant with hope, creative energy, and zestful savvy. As evidence that she has experienced the prototypical struggle for freedom and self-worth, she gives the impression of confessing all triumphs and shortcomings, even scenes and events which a more discreet author might have concealed from public view. The positive tone of her work uplifts the reader with renewed belief in the human ability to mitigate random injustice in order to survive. By growing stronger than the challenges that beset her, Maya completes the coming-of-age pilgrimage and arrives at adulthood, her dignity intact and her promise assured.
Ironically, the focal point of Angelou's talent is her delight in language, which she masters despite a year's self-imprisonment in muteness. Her skill at interweaving varied sounds, diction, metaphor, verse, hymns, scripture, and rhythms enlivens the narrative with texture and spirit. The resulting facile, readable blend covers the fourteen years of her childhood — from her arrival in Stamps, Arkansas, in 1931, at age three to her graduation from Lafayette County Training School and subsequent bonding with her three-week-old son at her mother's house in San Francisco in October 1945. Examples of her appealing turns of phrase are plentiful:
There was a cracker in Tulsa who bilked so many Negroes he could set up a Negro Bilking Company.
I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.
"Hey, baby. What's the news?"
"Everything's steady, baby, steady."
"How you doing, pretty?"
"I can't win, 'cause of the shape I'm in."
[Momma] used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can't control when venturing into profanity, "and wash as far as possible, then wash possible."
. . . Oh Mizeriz Coleman, how is your son? I saw him the other day, and he looked sick enough to die. . . . From the Uglies.
On the other side of Jordan, there is a peace for the weary, there is a peace for me.
Putting [his teeth] in his pocket, he gummed, "Naked I came into the world, and naked I shall go out."
We learned the times tables without understanding their grand principle, simply because we had the capacity and no alternative.
On Sunday mornings Momma served a breakfast that was geared to hold us quiet from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"They have, in the North, buildings so high that for months, in the winter, you can't see the top floors."
"Tell the truth."
"They've got watermelons twice the size of a cow's head and sweeter than syrup. . . . And if you can count the watermelon's seeds, before it's cut open, you can win five zillion dollars and a new car."
The sounds of the new morning had been replaced with grumbles about cheating houses, weighted scales, snakes, skimpy cotton and dusty rows.
Whores were lying down first and getting up last in the room next door. Chicken suppers and gambling games were rioting on a twenty-four-hour basis downstairs.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate rate.