I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou actually wrote a seven volume autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume, covering her childhood up to the birth of her son. Angelou led an incredible life but Caged Bird is the single work which defines her. Angelou was never a novelist in the mode of the typical twentieth century writer. Her writing ranged from journalism to poetry. She also worked in entertainment and politics. Angelou had a huge revival/canonization during the 1990's, when President Bill Clinton had her recite a poem at his first term inauguration.
In 2016 she remains a staple of student reading and the Oprah crowd. Although described as an autobiography, the level of narrative art and skill applied to the material makes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings more like autobiographical fiction. Like Toni Morrison's, The Bluest Eye, or Harper Lee in To Kill A Mockingbird, Angelou makes use of an unsophisticated child narrator to describe some very adult events.
The matter of fact depiction of Angelou's violation as an eight year old at the hands of her Mother's companion escapes being unbearable only because the Angelou-narrator child lacks the vocabulary to describe the events accurately. Like The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is about children but it is not children's literature. The Angelou narrator character manages to cover most of the United States as she is shuffled between both sets of grand parents and her separated parents.
The action begins in rural Arkansas, moves to urban St. Louis, then switches between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Part of the value of Caged Bird is Angelou's skilled depiction of these different areas and the relationship dynamics between blacks and whites, and within the black community. Towards the end, the Angelou narrator character goes so far as to become the first black employee of the San Francisco street car company, lowering a barrier before she was out of high school.
As is made very clear, Angelou was no ordinary child, reading Dickens and Defoe before she was out of grade school. And despite the rape, she writes about a life that was essentially free of hardship. In Arkansas, her father's mother, who she calls Momma, is almost the sole member of the black bourgeois, running the only shop that sells to African-American's in that part of Arkansas. In St. Louis, her mothers mother is an essentially white mulatto who serves as a ward boss and commands a gang of her three sons and their cronies.
Only her father, working a series of menial jobs and living in a trailer in Southern California, would fail to meet normal standards of middle class existence. For African American author writing about life in the early part of the 20th century, little conflict needs to be invented. The mere description of day-to-day existence is harrowing enough, every moment fraught with tension, or at least the potential for tension.
It's no wonder that Caged Bird is close to being required reading for students.