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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Angelou)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou, 1969
Random House
289 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345514400


Summary 
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age–and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime.

Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns about love for herself and the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern American classic that will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
• Aka— Margeurite Johnson
Birth—April 04, 1928
Where—St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Education—High school in Atlanta and San Francisco
Awards—Langston Hughes Award 1991; Grammy Award for
  Spoken Word Recording, 1993 and 1995; Quill Award, 2006
Currently—Winston-Salem, North Carolina


An author whose series of autobiographies is as admired for its lyricism as its politics, Maya Angelou is a writer who’s done it all. Angelou's poetry and prose—and her refusal to shy away from writing about the difficult times in her past—have made her an inspiration to her readers. (From the publisher.)

More
As a chronicler of her own story and the larger civil rights movement in which she took part, Maya Angelou is remarkable in equal measure for her lyrical gifts as well as her distinct sense of justice, both politically and personally.

Angelou was among the first, if not the first, to create a literary franchise based on autobiographical writings. In the series’ six titles—beginning with the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and followed by Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and Mom and Me and Mom—Angelou tells her story in language both no-nonsense and intensely spiritual.

Angelou’s facility with language, both on paper and as a suede-voiced speaker, have made her a populist poet. Her 1995 poem “Phenomenal Woman” is still passed along the Web among women as inspiration:

It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips
The stride of my steps
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally
Phenomenal woman
That's me.

Her 1993 poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” written for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, was later released as a Grammy-winning album.

Angelou often cites other writers (from Kenzaburo Oe to James Baldwin) both in text and name. But as often as not, her major mentors were not writers—she had been set to work with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. before each was assassinated, stories she recounts in A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

Given her rollercoaster existence—from poverty in Arkansas to journalism in Egypt and Ghana and ultimately, to her destiny as a successful writer and professor in the States—it’s no surprise that Angelou hasn’t limited herself to one or two genres. Angelou has also written for stage and screen, acted, and directed. She is the rare author from whom inspiration can be derived both from her approach to life as from her talent in writing about it. Reading her books is like taking counsel from your wisest, favorite aunt.

Extras
• Angelou was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Nyo Boto in the 1977 miniseries Roots. She has also appeared in films such as How to Make an American Quilt and Poetic Justice, and she directed 1998’s Down in the Delta.

• Angelou speaks six languages, including West African Fanti.

• She taught modern dance at the Rome Opera House and the Hambina Theatre in Tel Aviv.

• Before she became famous as a writer, Maya Angelou was a singer. Miss Calypso is a CD of her singing calypso songs. (From Barnes and Noble.)



Book Reviews
The wisdom, rue and humor of her storytelling are borne on a lilting rhythm completely her own, the product of a born writer's senses nourished on black church singing and preaching, soft mother talk and salty street talk, and on literature: James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Shakespeare and Gorki.
New York Times Book Review


Maya Angelou's autobiography was the first book I ever read that made me feel my life as a colored girl growing up in Mississippi deserved validation. I loved it from the opening lines.
Oprah Winfrey - Oprah Magazine


This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of a new error in the minds and hearts of all black men and women...I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity. I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood when the poeple in books were more real than the people one saw everyday, had I found myself so moved...Her portrait is a biblical study of life in the midst of death.
James Baldwin (author


I know why the caged bird sings: this statement as much as any other defines the uniquely expansive and knowing vision of Maya Angelou. In her works of poetry, drama, and memoir, she describes the imperfections and perversions of humanity_men, women, black, white_with an unrelenting and sometimes jarring candor. But that candor is leavened by an unusually strong desire to comprehend the worst acts of the people around her and find a way for hope and love to survive in spite of it all. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the beautifully written and brutally honest chronicle of Angelou's life from her arrival in Stamp, Arkansas, at age three to the birth of her only child in San Francisco, at age sixteen. In between those two events, Angelou provides an unfbrgettable memoir of growing up black in the 1930s and 1940s in a tiny southern town in Arkansas.

Angelou vividly describes the everyday indignities pressed on blacks in her small town, whether by the condescending white women who shortened her name to Mary because her real name, Marguerite, took too long to say, or by the cruel white dentist who refused to treat her because ... . my policy is I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than a nigger's. She also faced horror and brutality at the hands of her own people_she was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was eight years old and later witnessed his murder at the hands of her uncles, a trauma that sent her into a shell of silence for years. Nevertheless, she emphasizes the positive things she learned from the "rainbows" in the black community of her youth that helped her survive and keep her hopes alive: her grandmother, Momma, who owned a general store and remained a pillar despite the struggles of being a black woman in a segregated and racist southern town; the Holy Rollers of the revivalist black church, who used coded language to attack the racist system they lived under; and Mrs.Bertha Flowers, the aristocratic black woman who brought her back from her shell of silence by introducing her to a love of literature, language, and recitation.

Her mastery of language and storytelling allows Angelou to record the incidents that shaped and troubled her, while also giving insight into the larger social and political tensions of the 1930s. She explains both the worst aspects of her youth and the frequent moments of exhilaration with drama and vigor; it's in the carefully described details and minor incidents that her childhood world is brought to life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970 and remains an immensely popular book among people worldwide to this day for its honest and hopeful portrait of a woman finding the strength to overcome any adversity, of a caged bird who found the means to fly. Angelou has written four follow-up autobiographical works: Gather Together in My Name, Singin Swinginand Getting Merry Like Christmas, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, and Heart of a Woman.
Sacred Fire



Discussion Questions 
1. The memoir opens with a provocative refrain: "What you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay ... " What do you think this passage says about Ritie's sense of herself? How does she feel about her place in the world? How does she keep her identity intact?

2. Upon seeing her mother for the first time after years of separation, Ritie describes her as "a hurricane in its perfect power." What do you think about Ritie's relationship with her mother? How does it compare to her relationship with her grandmother, "Momma"?

3. The author writes, "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." What do you make of the author's portrayal of race? How do Ritie and her family cope with the racial tension that permeates their lives?

4. Throughout the book, Ritie struggles with feelings that she is "bad" and "sinful, " as her thoughts echo the admonitions of her strict religious upbringing. What does she learn at the end of the memoir about right and wrong?

5. What is the significance of the title as it relates to Ritie's self-imposed muteness?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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