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on March 26, 2004
In a poetic, yet detatched way, Maya Angelou captures the heart of her struggles growing up female and Black during the Depression. Her style and description draw in the reader and keep her spellbound even during the most painful scenes. You feel deeply for the author and her little brother as they drift through their lives living for a bit of affection. Neglected by their divorced parents, Maya and her brother get sent to Arkansas at ages 4 and 5 to live with their grandma and handicapped uncle. Although life is hard and love not demonstrated, Maya learns much from her grandma and uncle.
The theme of this book is the quest for the child to be loved by the adult. Maya feels inferior. She feels ugly and compares herself to her magical brother Bailey. Both children are starved for true affection and daydream a white movie actress on the screen is their long lost mother.
Maya and her brother are eventually united with "Mother Dear" in St.Louis when she is eight. Unfortunately Mother's boyfriend begins to abuse Maya(...). This is graphically portrayed in the book. Maya's feelings of not belonging and not being truly loved are compounded after the abuse.
I admire all the autobiographical books by Ms.Angelou. She has achieved a lot in her life for a person who started out in such a sad situation.
This book should be read and re-read.
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on June 8, 2000
May I tell you why I choose to have my ninth grade students read it? I have noticed a lot of reviews by young people, which I applaud, but an adult perspective might be helpful.
I don't particularly feel the need to defend its merits. (I am not articulate enough to do justice to that task.) As with any book, some will love it and some won't. Guaranteed, it will make you uncomfortable at times, because one chapter describes the rape of a young person--which is painful for any compassionate human being to hear. Plus, there are other sexual issues, largely stemming from the earlier assault, but also because she is a teenager in the last phase of the book. Such questions about love and sex are characteristic of the teenage years. Many young people, as well as adults, are confused about such topics. While these are generally the most controversial segments from the book, the fundamental lesson of the book goes far beyond the survival of one victim. I won't supply you with the answers as to what one should take away from the text. It is a personal experience for each of us.
We can all learn from Maya's honest account of her childhood journey. We can all try on her experiences and live vicariously through her for a while, and see how it changes our own perspective on what it means to be a human being.
I'll be the first to admit, this book is a challenge for all my students in one way or another. Some because they are white and live in the northern US. Some because they are male and it's difficult to view life through a woman's eyes. Some because of the adult vocabulary and extensive use of figurative language. Some of these experiences are so remote from their own, while others are very close to home. It helps them to see how much we actually do have in common with those who at first seem very different. They all can benefit from reading it, if they give it a chance. (Adults may be better equiped to appreciate fully this text. However, young people can take so much from it. Maybe one day, we can have an abridged version, so it is still rich in language and meaning, yet condensed so more young people can access its many gifts.)
Beyond the darkness of some of those experiences (discrimination, rape, humilation and fear) lies a powerful sense of hope, dignity, determination and resilience. One of my favorite aspects of the book is its emphasis on the power of education, language and literacy. Throughout Maya's life--books, poetry, impassioned voices have all inspired her. Her autobiography is a moving tribute to a literate way of life and an enduring legacy to that tradition.
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on January 10, 2005
Going into my freshman year of high school and my first honors english class I was told by my church to beware of the evil book they would force me to read-- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

It was protested because of the vivid picture painted of her sexual abuse.

After reading it I can only shake my head at the people who warned me of this book. By refusing to read it because of something horrible happening to someone you fail to really realise that things of that nature happen.

Reading this book was an eyeopener to me-- to understand just where people like Maya come from. I was riveted throughout this book. Easily it is one of the better books I've read.
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HALL OF FAMEon March 30, 2001
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou, is the first volume in this author's extraordinary series of autobiographical narratives. "I Know..." begins with her childhood and takes us into her young womanhood. This book has, since its publication, become a beloved contemporary classic of African-American literature.
After their parents' separation, young Marguerite (her given name) and her brother, Bailey, are sent to live with their strong-willed grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, deep in the segregated South. Angelou also describes her time spent with her other grandmother in St. Louis, as well as her young adulthood in San Francisco. The overall time period of the book overlaps that of World War II.
"I Know..." offers important insights into the world of racial segregation, and painfully records the toll taken by racism in its various forms. Also powerful and important is Angelou's recollection of surviving a brutal sexual assault when she was a child. Angelou recalls vividly the authors who made an impact on her during her childhood and young adulthood: James Weldon Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, and others. The book concludes with her sexual awakening as a young woman.
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is an American classic which has lost none of its power in the 30 years since it first appeared. Angelou's prose is direct and personal, and marked with passages of wit and beauty. For scholars of African-American literature, women's studies, or literary autobiography, this is an essential volume.
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on April 5, 2003
This is an enjoyable, easy-to-read short book written by Maya Angelou about her childhood in the segregated deep south. She skillfully decribes both good-times and bad in Stamps, Arkansas where she and her brother, raised by her grandmother and uncle, took on many childhood adventures in and around her grandmother's general store in the Negro section of town. She devotes several chapters to a time when she and her brother lived in Long Beach, California with her fast moving mother and indifferent father. When things go bad, she describes her return to a simple yet orderly life in Stamps.
The reader is touched by the difficulties overcome by Maya Angelou and has a new appreciation for those who were raised in a different place and time. Her upbringing filled with discipline, hard-work and solid roles models had a positive impact on her as a person. She was able to overcome the negative influences.
Most of all, the key to her success is contagious and when finished, the reader is left with a glimmer of hope that if she can do it, so can I.... no matter what my walk of life. Very inspirational book!
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on January 18, 2003
Maya Angelou was born into a society that was as rigidly stratified as any other in the world. Sometimes this stratification is based on religion, or on ethnic caste, or as in the United States, on skin color. What most often happens is that the favored color takes certain things for granted: upward mobility is within reach, respect is expected, and laws are meant for all (of that color). The subordinate color learns the inverse. In I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, Maya, as a child, learns all that plus she conspires against herself and her color. She sees whiteness as a desirable trait, blackness as not. In fact, her early life in Stamps is one prolonged immersion in what she terms a 'black ugly dream.' To compound her dilemma, she faces gender discrimination. Boys on the black pecking order occupy a rung higher. Yet despite all this, Maya even manages to overcome the trauma of rape at the age of eight from a trusted family friend. What Maya takes out of this act of violation is her realization that the ogre of life can be shut down if she learns to shut herself down. For months afterwards, she is deliberately mute. Her silence screams volumes while her soul decides how to heal itself. Eventually, Maya finds solace in the way that all trod on underdogs do: by self-betterment. With the help of her brother Bailey and god-fearing family, Maya discovers that the key to her rebirth lies first in books, then later in extracting nuggets of wisdom from those books which she can apply to her life.
The careful reader will surely note that even the very young Maya is exceptionally erudite and glib. This is more a function of the adult Maya structuring her memories enriched with a lifetime of learning from those memories than it is of a precocious child. The grown woman Maya Angelou is a superb writer who uses the traditional devices of figurative language, a sense of the power of the spoken word, and a wide ranging use of symbols, all of which add up to a story that never palls or drags. By the time the reader gets to the end, this reader can see that the journey of a little girl who made the rounds of a short life of physical and emotional bounces has learned from a book what that girl so painfully endured: that freedom can only be achieved if fear is first confronted then beaten down.
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on September 27, 2008
This book provides well-written insight into growing up as a black child during the Depression. Maya Angelou is wonderful with her use of words and imagery. I was greatly reminded of my own childhood and what being a kid really meant. Written in first person, she addresses childhood fears, respect for adults and growing up with such tangible details that she could be her eight-year-old self again.

Angelou's insights into the African-American way of life and religion during a time of national change range from tender to comical. She speaks warmly of her love for her brother and her frustration with the young white girls. It is sweet to see the growing up process taking affect and the experiences of youth shaping her character.

I am somewhat relieved that we were not permitted to read this book back in my high school literature class where many parents were opposed to it. I fear it would have caught me off guard in many respects. Many of the sexual themes running throughout the book are quite heavy and discussed in detail. Both the subjects of rape and teen pregnancy are covered and sex in general is frequently alluded to.

Though I do perceive this as a lovely piece of literature, I would be cautious in offering it to teens and others who may be unprepared for its impact.
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on December 2, 1999
I was intrigued by the mixed ratings of this book & the various comments about Maya Angelou being racist towards whites. This book is written throught the eyes of a young black child growing up in a community where there is segregation & discrimination on account of skin colour. To see 'differences' between 'black' & 'white' is something she has grown up with.
Taken by her Grandmother with severe toothache to a white dentist (the black dentist being a days journey away), Maya is refused treatment with the excuse - "I'd rather put my hand in a dogs mouth than in some niggah." This man had borrowed money from Maya's Grandmother to keep his surgery open during the depression. He refuses to treat a 'black' child......but 'black' money is 'acceptable'. With such hypocrisy, surely you can understand how Maya would feel a little disgruntled towards her white countrymen? Who wouldn't?
Being a 'white' female, I will probably never encounter such racial discrimination or even understand how another person prejudices could effect your own peace of mind. Read it & remind yourself of the similarities between human beings rather than superficial differences.
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on May 31, 2000
Maya Angelou can write, there is no question about that. Her descriptions in this book are so vivid and expressive that I feel, in a small way, I know what it might have been like to live in Arkansas during the 1940s.
I found in the reviews that there seemed to be 2 reasons that people didn't like this book:
1) kids forced to read it for school - I'm not surprised. If I was 14, I probably would have hated it too. Kids want books with action and a story.
2) suggestions that Maya Angelou is a racist - this book is told through the eyes of a young black girl who rarely met a white person and those she met treated her in ways that stripped her of her dignity and her personhood. Any negative feelings she had are entirely understandable.
Maya writes with honesty and such feeling that at times it is almost painful to read but I'm glad I did. I'll never know what it feels like to be black and the target of bigotry but Maya has helped me understand just a little by letting me walk a while in her shoes.
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on January 15, 2001
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's first of her series of autobiographies. In Angelou's book she includes a myriad of experiences from her childhood which have affected her life positively and negatively. These experiences are derived from racial issues of the south to her inconsistent family life. George E. Kent states, "The book is rich in portraits of a wide assortment of blacks, descriptions of the rhythms of their lives, and evocations of the patterns of the different environment." Through these descriptions Angelou amazingly gives the point of view of a young, developing child. Through the insights of a child the reader is able to connect with the author's life on a more personal level. Kent also states that "...she has employed what has become a rather personalized style..." I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an account of Angelou's childhood. The story begins when three year old Marguerite Johnson (Maya Angelou) and her four year old brother, Bailey, are sent away by her divorcing parents to live with their paternal Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. This move is only the beginning of an inconsistent childhood. Grandmother Henderson represents strict religious traditions in a poor black community in the racist south. Angelou generalizes the children's situation as follows: "Years alter I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns...." To continue the inconsistency at the age of eight, during the return to her mother, she endures rape by her Mother's lover. As a result of this, Marguerite stops speaking on her return to Stamps. The duration of Angelou's life she must overcome many barriers in order to find herself. In this search for herself, Angelou questions her sexuality. As a result of this confusion she embarks in a
meaningless sexual encounter. This encounter will affect the rest of her life. Maya Angelou's childhood proves to be very significant. She is able to give the readers a balanced feeling and understanding of a black child during this time and the inconsistencies in which she endures. A black child's life is described by Kent as follows, " In this fast life area of black tradition, the children receive great kindness and considerable impact from built-in instabilities." One specific inconsistency is a role of a mother figure in her childhood. This situation relates to racial conflict and is described through a certain quote from the book. "She questions whether she loves her children enough-or more terribly, does she love them too much?... In the face of these contradictions, she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged."(p.123-24) Although the introduction of this book tends to be slow at times, Angelou successfully connects her readers into her account of her childhood and through her encounters with various people and situations she expresses what has helped mold her into who she is today. Overall, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an explicit and honest look into a black child's life. Maya Angelou's account of her childhood attracted me from the beginning to the end. I enjoyed reading about all of her experiences and even learned from some of them as I read. Such as, "that life loved the person who dared to live it." (p.129) Also Vivian Baxter's ( Angelou's mother) motto on life "hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between."(p.288) Maya Angelou hit a personal note for me and many other Americans. This autobiographical attempt is very much a success.
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