Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reflections: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

This well acclaimed book is the autobiography of Maya Angelou (Marguerite Johnson), focusing on her childhood and teenage years. The memoir strings together Maya Angelou's vivid memories of her growing years in a hostile society that cruelly disregarded African Americans. Hailing from a broken family, Angelou and her brother are shifted between their mother, paternal grandmother and father. Her poetic prose conveys the deep angst of a young girl who is in search of a paternal figure to lean on for love and affection and tries to piece together a family. Her childhood has been mercilessly lacerated with deep scars - rape, racism, parental abandonment, neglect, depression, teenage pregnancy etc. In many ways it is very inspiring that Angelou built her identity through many of her personal crisis and guided her mind towards better ways of living, despite minimal parental nurture. Her love for literature, and curiosity towards information from books seemed to form her guiding light. I was impressed at her maturity and sensitive perception of people, even as a young girl.

Despite her prose being so evocatively profound, Angelou's narration has a sense of detachment. The sense of detached reflection makes her writing all the more deep and insightful without the distraction of heavy emotions and sentiments. Her writing enfolds very sensitive and wise reflections into very creative and beautiful metaphors that it takes time to decrypt the words and reflect on them. The paragraphs cannot be simply read - they are meant to be savored. Her poetic imagination is wonderful. During the initial pages of the book, I was more keen on learning her story, but there comes a point where you realize that the book is more about the development of her personality and identity, than the tale of her life.

I was a little disappointed that she ended the memoir a little abruptly. It was like riding on a high wave and then being suddenly dropped down. I was waiting for her to wrap up her thoughts, her experiences and probably even discuss a little about why she chose this title for her memoir, but she brought the book to a close as a beginning of another chapter - perhaps it was meant to be so, for the current memoir focuses just on the first 17 years of her life.

With my unabated curiosity, I came up with an interpretation as to why she chose the title - "I know why the caged bird sings". An obvious interpretation of "caged bird" is the servitude that haunted her because of her race and color. In addition to this, I also saw her childhood to be caged - she constantly struggled to be free as a child, free of worries, of pain and solitude. Her childhood spirit was stunted and trapped within her, wings clipped and scarred. But these bitter experiences taught her to survive, it enriched her wisdom, encouraged her to explore and develop her talents and to seek her own living. Her deeply moving poems and prose seem to signify the song of the trapped spirit.

The title was borrowed from the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy". The poem piteously describes the state of African Americans shackled by their servitude. The third paragraph of the poem reads as:

"I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,--
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings! "


SecondSight said...

One of my favorite things about this book is its title- Reminiscent of Gibran's "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding" - the song of the bird that knows the opposite of freedom is always richer than the song that stems from knowing nothing but freedom.. :)

Perception said...

Beautiful poem, thanks for sharing it. I will try to get hold of this book.

Oorja said...

Somehow.... "Misery creates Masterpieces.."

i am back from my trip.. and i see u have been reading a lot.. will go through all of it... :-)

priti said...

Neeraja - you seem to have a wonderful collection or rather a taste for books...Do you have a list that I can borrow?? I would love to see your reads sometime :)

Neeraja said...

Thanks Priti! You're the first to ask for my list ;). I actually don't have a physical list... most of the books I read this summer were borrowed from a friend, and I just have an adhoc mental wishlist of books to read, and most of the time Amazon recommends very interesting books based on my browsing and purchases :) I'm just getting into the habit of documenting books that I read, so I don't forget about them :) And u have motivated me to start a physical list :)... will share when I create one!

priti said...

Well then :) I deserve to be the first one you share it with when you make one :)