Never have I read an autobiography that defied my expectations as much as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And so beautifully.
I imagined an explosive indictment against the segregated South during the Depression era. Instead, I discovered the simple brilliance of a child’s perspective wrestling with the circumstances of her upbringing. Of course, the violent dichotomy between white and black America shrouded Angelou’s world and this story reflected her conceptions of that world. Whatever impressions the reader owns after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings belong to them, free of any “preachy” influence from Angelou. The reader simply finds themselves wrestling with her experiences as she did.
She narrates a tale of growing up. Nothing more. The racial sentiments play a crucial role in her story similarly as any other circumstance would play a role in others’ stories. She talks about enlightening mentors, innocent friendships, religion, paternal iniquities, maternal strength and brotherly devotion. Yet the segregated South and American distaste for Black permeates all of these things. And Angelou’s brilliant prose style, in which she employs all the right words rather than the pretty ones, reflects the simple and innocent perspective of a growing girl. Angelou restrains from talking about her childhood from her mature perspective but lets her young mind lead the story. She naturally reacts to her life’s circumstances as anyone else would.
For those people in modern America who feel race is a card, something for which they should not feel responsible and cringe at as if Death itself hovered over their beds, how can one deny the feelings of a child? How can one see her natural reactions and think stereotype has justifiable reasons? Understanding the plight of another does not inherently convict someone of guilt or self-deprecation. For me, I hear this story and feel that my own character would have crumbled at the prospect of this childhood. I admire her for her strength, not her race. I understand my own integrity as inferior to hers but not because of race or guilt.
Just as me.