October is Black History Month, and we are celebrating the late, great Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, writer, journalist and civil rights campaigner, who died earlier this year. While Angelou had a greatly varied life and is famous for many accomplishments, her first autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is her most famous work.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s account of her childhood in the American South during the Segregation era (when black Americans were forbidden to mix with white Americans). It was published after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 made it a crime to injure or intimidate people of different nationalities, races, religions or skin colour and was one of the first novels written by an African-American writer to reach widespread fame, crossing racial and geographical boundaries with a message of hope and forgiveness.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is painful to read in many places, as the whole novel deals with the racism that Angelou faced every day in the pre-Civil Rights era. Angelou talks matter-of-factly about people from her town getting lynched, and her uncle hiding under stacks of potatoes when a mob is on the rampage. The pride with which she writes about her grandmother standing up to insults with quiet dignity makes it clear that while cruelty and oppression was part of everyday life to African-Americans at the time, she admired her grandmother for never letting it destroy her. It’s heartbreaking to read about how the attitudes white Americans took to Angelou and her family affected her personal identity, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has an overwhelming message that love, courage and compassion will always win through.
Angelou not only faced racism but also sexual violence, and this is one of the darkest and most upsetting parts of the book to read. She talks about it honestly and discusses how her rape by a man she trusted impacted her psychologically: after she testified against the man who raped her, he was murdered and she refused to speak to anyone but her brother for a long time afterwards out of fear of what her own words could do. However, Angelou clearly feels a duty to speak of her experiences now: she acknowledges the legacy of black writers with the title of her book, taken from a line in a poem called ‘Sympathy’, by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
A number of other writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison wrote autobiographies and novels that expressed the struggles of African-Americans during the Segregation era, experiences that had previously been largely ignored or suppressed outside of the black community. While things are very far from equal now, these voices brought the struggles of African-Americans to a wider audience and still foster understanding even today, in a world where racial segregation and oppression seems such a bizarre concept (though still, sadly, prevalent in some places). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reminds us that these destructive expressions of racism happened to real people, and helps modern readers to understand why equality is important.
If you’d like to learn more…
Read the next volume of Angelou’s autobiography, called Gather Together in My Name or one of her collections of personal essays: Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now and Even the Stars Look Lonesome (all in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91).
Learn about two of the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement in the biographies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (both in the BOOK ZONE 973.0924).
Many films deal with the struggles of black Americans for recognition and equal treatment. Check out To Kill a Mockingbird (BOOK ZONE 823.91), based on the book by Harper Lee, which deals with a white lawyer who is forced to confront the terrible treatment that his black neighbours endure. Hairspray (DVD LOBBY 791.43) deals with Civil Rights issues as part of a light-hearted comedy without losing sight of how serious these issues were for those who had to live through them. The Help (DVD LOBBY 791.43) is about a black nanny working with a white journalist to write a book detailing the relationships between white employers and their black servants (‘the Help’) in 1960’s America.