A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first autobiographical book by Maya Angelou, the acclaimed author gives readers a profound education about the lives of black people in the American South during the 1930s. Angelou not only reveals the ways she and the other African-American citizens of Stamps, AK, were constantly degraded, demoralized, and threatened by whites, but she also places them in historical context and reflects poignantly on the effects these experiences had on her self-image. Other educational details include descriptions of the differences between black and white schools at that time, a bit about life in 1930s St. Louis, and a good deal about the neighborhoods and race roles in World War II-era San Francisco.
Just as Maya Angelou reveals the degrading injustice that pervaded American life for blacks--and especially female blacks--during the time when she was growing up, she also shows the impressive courage, intellect, and pride it took to persevere under those circumstances. She also emphasizes the strong impact that a great teacher or mentor can have on a young person, and the power of familial love and religious faith.
Positive Role Models
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou repeatedly acknowledges the mentors who helped her develop her inner strength and love of learning: Her grandmother, whom she called Momma, provided moral backbone as wll as unswerving care and sacrifice. A sophisticated neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, uses her love of literature to help Maya overcome a trauma and rediscover her own voice. A special teacher, Miss Kirwin, inspires Maya's love of learning and gives her a rare glimpse at a world where achievement is rewarded fairly, with no regard for race.
Violence & Scariness
In Stamps, AK, young men live in threat of violence if they are believed to have made sexual overtures to white women; Angelou describes grown men hiding in fear from the Klu Klux Klan. Maya's brother, Bailey Jr., sees a dead man's body fished out of a river. In St. Louis, In St. Louis, Maya is molested twice, and raped once by her mother's live-in boyfriend, who threatens to kill her brother if she tells anyone. Maya's uncles are known to be violent, and they apparently beat to death the man who hurt Maya. Later in the book, in California, Maya is physically attacked and cut by the girlfreind of her father, Bailey Sr.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Sexual activity in the book ranges from confused to violent. Maya and her brother, Bailey Jr., overhear adults talking about people "doing it." After she fails to recover emotionally from a sexual assault, Maya and her brother are sent back to Stamps, where 11-year-old Bailey Jr. gets involved sexually with an older girl. Maya's father is a womanizer; his sexual exploits are not described, but it is known that he is involved with multiple partners. Her mother has live-in boyfriends, but sometimes stays out all night and seems also to have multiple partners. As Maya grows older, she develops confusion about the ways her body is changing and seems different from some of her peers, and wonders about lesbianism, which she briefly erroneously associates with hermaphrodites. She later has intercourse once with a boy her age in an effort to understand her own sexuality better.
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Whites use the "N" word in reference to blacks. Other offensive words include "bitch" and "whore."
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Products & Purchases
Small emphasis is placed on the quality of men's suits, and homemade or "cut-down" second-hand dresses vs. store-bought dresses. In Momma's store in Stamps, patrons consume Coca-Cola and brand-name candy bars.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Angelou's mother and Grandmother Baxter (on her mother's side) smoke cigarettes; Grandmother Baxter suffers from chronic bronchitis as a result. Her father, Bailey Sr., drinks to excess and becomes so drunk on a driving trip to Mexico that Maya, then age 15, tries to drive his car home.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the first volume in poet Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a poignant and poetic account of the author's life up until age 17. Named for the caged-bird image that Lawrence Dunbar used in his poem "Sympathy," the book honestly reveals the cruelty, indignity, and injustice that confined African Americans in the 1930s and '40s -- the cage -- but also celebrates black people's spirit, humor, and courage. Reading Dunbar's poem may offer further insight into this book. Nominated for a National Book Award, this autobiographical work is strong, honest, and beautifully written, but it details some very upsetting personal incidents, including the rape of a very young girl, shocking racial prejudice, and gritty urban life, so it may be too disturbing for preteens. Angelou also wrote the screenplay for a 1999 movie adaptation of the book.
Is It Any Good?
Angelou's autobiography is an important and honest look at racial prejudice in the United States during the 1930s and '40s, but it's also as compelling and lyrical as a great novel. Young Maya and the other "characters" are richly realized and complex. The author tells a far-reaching story, emotionally and historically; this book is an essential document for young people who want to understand the plight of African Americans and the ways prejudice affects individuals. The book was nominated for a National Book Award.
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