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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

maya mother freeman volume

the first volume of a multi-volume autobiography by Maya Angelou, published in 1970. The book broke ground for African-American women writers in terms of critical acclaim and large sales. It is a powerful and often painful evocation of Angelou's childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in the black community of the US Deep South. As the book opens, the author—then Marguerite Johnson, lonely, shy, self-conscious—and her older brother Bailey, aged three and four respectively, offspring of a failed marriage, travel from California with a note entrusting them to the care of their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. They little understand adult codes or the harsh realities of segregated society, and the world to which they become used is disrupted four years later when they are reunited with their mother in St Louis. There begins a sequence of events central to the author's journey towards adolescence: the eight-year-old Marguerite is raped by her mother's lover Mr Freeman, but at a subsequent trial the confused child denies it. When Freeman is later found murdered, Maya is so traumatized by the belief that she is to blame for lying that she becomes a voluntary mute, and is banished back to Stamps, where after five years Mrs Flowers, ‘the aristocrat of Black Stamps’, helps release her from silence by encouraging her love of reading. In 1941, the children join their mother and her new husband in San Francisco, where Maya learns the ghetto ethic of survival and begins to take power over her own destiny. An exploration of her sexuality leaves her pregnant at 16, but the birth of her son brings an ability to assume control of her own life and creativity, free at last from a caged existence.

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