Memoirs are everywhere these days. Something mildly interesting happens to you? Write a memoir about it. Cultural heroine, writer, and activist Maya Angelou is an exception to the sometimes mundane masses. Her coming-of-age story was so gripping and heartbreaking that an autobiography was literally demanded of her by a woman Angelou met at a dinner party through her good friend James Baldwin. Angelou, not one to say no to a challenge, took it on, and the result was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," one of the most well regarded books of our time and a staple among classrooms and households across America.
"Caged Bird," first published in 1969, quickly became a bestseller, was nominated for a National Book Award, and won critical acclaim; but perhaps its top achievement was that it was one of the first books in which an African-American woman wrote about her own personal experiences. As it turned out, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was just the beginning: Angelou went on to write five more autobiographies to make up a complete, six-volume series.
"Caged Bird" begins as Angelou and her brother, three and four respectively, are being shipped off to live with their grandmother after their parents split up. Angelou writes in the introduction, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” From there, she explores growing up black in the racist South, the traumatizing experience she has when sent to stay with her mother at eight years old, and how she is ultimately saved by her love of literature.
In true bildungsroman form, Angelou’s struggle with her sexuality and the outcome of that struggle make it into the book, as well, setting the scene for the beginning of her next autobiography, "Gather Together in My Name." Listen here for her singular and unforgettable voice reading aloud from "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."