Image: I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings (Penguin Random House)

Publisher Synopsis: Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.


Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most famous (and popular) of the many autobiographical books she wrote (all of which have great titles, Singin’ Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas is my personal favorite), and for good reason. It is as compelling a narrative as you can find and took Angelou’s penchant for art and storytelling and put them together as one. Angelou is one of the most famous black writers (and writers period) of the 20th century so if you’re black and read, this book has probably been part of your life.

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The book chronicles her tale of life from humble Arkansas beginnings throughout her youth, including the racism, abuse and abandonment that largely defined her and her brother’s life. Of course, the famous muting of her own voice, because she believes it killed a man (after he sexually abused her), is present in this volume. Even though the book covers a relatively short amount of time in what would be a long life, her ability to self-reflect and tell such an eloquent story of pain and struggle is why this book has been a best-seller in several decades.

Maya Angelou is an American treasure, canonized in documentaries, books and is largely remembered for her stirring performance of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She’s an author, actor, singer, playwright, director, etc. She’s done it all. The trauma and struggle present laid bare in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is part of that seminal career, and for many a writer, is the reason why they sing.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou