Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

maya_angelou_review_12312016Maya Angelou. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was in graduate school, I shared an office with a black student from Trinidad. He was an easy person to like and we had a great time together. After a few weeks, however, I wondered why he seemed so different to me—he had no chip on his shoulder. I was accustomed to the African American chip and he lacked the chip.


In her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wastes no time in revealing the chip. The first story that she shares is a story of shame, embarrassment, and torment in reciting a poem on Easter Sunday in Sunday school at the age of about three where she writes about her mother dressing her:

“As I’d watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cut little tucks around the waist, I know that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color). I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.” (2)

Angelou was born April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Annie Johnson[1] in Saint Louis, Missouri, which would place this event around 1931 during the Great Depression. Her awareness of social position at age three is astounding—my first awareness of the existence of black people did not come until I was around 5 years old and at that point I had no awareness of my social position or lack thereof. The idea that I would define my own identity at age three in turns of another social group is incredulous. Ms. Angelou was either an incredibly gifted three-year old or she is writing in adult voice about her experiences as a child, imposing an adult chip on a three-year old shoulder. Because she self-identifies as a civil rights activist, I suspect that the later interpretation is more appropriate.[2]

Deep Pain Theme

Whether you accept the chip or not, this is a powerful image of deep pain, which is a theme throughout this memoir. In the following chapter, she writes about the experience of being abandoned by her parents (5-9); later, she is reunited with her mother only to be raped at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend (77-82); the final chapter recounts how she solicited a physical relationship with a good looking boy—to upgrade her own self-esteem—and has a child out of wedlock at age 16 (273-283). The deep pain, that these events reveal, leads us to excuse her use of adult voice, in part, because such pain leaves little room for the vicissitudes of a sheltered childhood.

Not Extreme or Extraordinary

Such deeply troubling and painful events may seem extreme. If I had not worked in a hospital that serves African Americans, I might have questioned whether this memoir was typical of the African American experience but I met many women with similar stories. Sadly, such circumstances are too typical. What surprised me most about my conversations as a chaplain intern with these women was how few of them were willing to shoulder the chip to blame others.[3] The grace and magnanimity of these women—most of whom were deeply religious Christians—was a testimony to their faith.


Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, documents her early life experiences as a young black woman from the age of three until about sixteen living in the rural south (Stamps, Arkansas), Saint Louis, and California. Angelou is an engaging and expressive writer who writes about her deepest and most painful experiences growing up. Hopefully, she found catharsis in writing and we, as readers, can share in this catharsis.


[1] April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014.


[3] For Angelou, the chip is never far off. Near the end of her memoir, she writes: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (272)Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

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