“When great souls die,
. . .
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
With the death of Maya Angelou in summer 2014, one of America’s most honest, powerful voices on race, gender discrimination, and violence was silenced. A celebrated poet, serial autobiographer, playwright, director, activist, and performing artist, Angelou was known for her deep civil-rights commitments globally. In both poetry and prose, Angelou captured truths that could touch readers like a tender caress or a stunning gut punch. Her effectiveness lay in knowing what was at once both personal and universal in human experience, and she had a keen ability to evoke a shared recognition of horror and beauty and of grief and joy. She moved us on international stages when she celebrated Bill Clinton’s Presidential inauguration and when she reflected on the life of Nelson Mandela, and, in the telling of her own story, she also revealed common human truths.
Forty-five years after she recounted her life as a Black girl growing up in the rural south in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this lyrical prose narrative continues to resonate with these truths. Recounting childhood experiences, Angelou opens from a critical, omniscient perspective: “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” (4). Soon into the narrative Angelou recounts her rape at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend. In the aftermath of sexual assault, she internalizes a sense of difference and shame, judging herself “sinful and dirty” and becomes mute for two years (92).
Angelou’s silence, which can be read as both a reaction to trauma and as an act of resistance, eventually isolates her. She begins to feel disconnected from the world: “Sounds came to me dully,” and “colors weren’t true either . . . not so much color as faded familiarities” (92). But while violence shaped her life, it did not define who Angelou was or limit who she could be. With the support of her brother, trusted mentors, anti-racist teachers, and loving caregivers, Angelou learned to embody courage in the face of sexism and racism. She came to understand that harmful forces in society must be resisted to survive as a Black female “caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power” (272).
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is more than a powerful story of a young girl’s life. It is an invaluable historical account of African-American experiences prior to desegregation. However, as a consideration of gender and race in current U.S. incarceration, poverty, and health statistics reveal, racism and sexism still exist, like a rusty razor, poised at our collective throats.
Caged Bird is not just an exposé of racial and gender oppression. As Angleou explores these themes in her life, she steadily narrows and refines her focus, directing our attention to universal human questions–how we understand, learn from, and accept disappointment and pain, how we forgive and may be forgiven, and how we may become more compassionately aware. Angelou’s voice in Caged Bird speaks just as powerfully, perhaps even more so, across time, urging each one of us to be appreciative of others whom we love and who love us. She calls upon us to be righteously angry when that is called for, to be creative, and to live passionately—to “be and be better.”