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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is a powerful, inspirational childhood autobiography by Maya Angelou, the well-known literary, artistic, and spiritual figure. The book spans her early childhood through adolescence, most of it spent in the South in the 1930s and 1940s. The author's voice is primarily the firstperson vantage point of a child. The opening scene is Easter Sunday in church, with young Maya squirming in the children's section; spiritual and religious issues permeate the book. Angelou captures many common paradoxes of living, and explores the role of faith and spirituality in reconciling these tensions. Pervasive through the book are influences of race, gender, socioeconomic status, geographical region, and historical era. This autobiography contextualizes spiritual development. Every page speaks a human voice, and thus captures the authenticity of the personal and institutional in a child's spirituality.
Throughout the book, Angelou illustrates how children's many social contexts-family, church, school, peers, neighborhood, and so on-all influence spiritual development. Spirituality's life-affirming role in the African-American community is made particularly evident in Maya's childhood during which she lived in a small, segregated town in Arkansas. The values, worldviews, and disciplines in the faithful communities of which she is a part uphold her spiritual journey. However, other communities (such as Maya's time in St. Louis with her mother) are lacking in spiritual grounding, and Maya's development suffers. In both communities, Maya's spirituality is crucial in her resilience against tough odds.
A crucial figure in Maya's life is her maternal grandmother, Momma, who raises Maya and her older brother in Stamps, Arkansas, after the children's negligent parents in California sent them packing. Momma shares her theology in verbal assertions, such as God "never gives us more than we can bear" and "God is love. Just worry about whether you're being a good girl then he will love you". Momma's authoritarian behavior, demands for cleanliness and obedience in the name of God, and her own daily spiritual disciplines provide a powerful model for Maya's observational learning of spirituality. Momma begins each day with morning prayer and she regularly invokes God to cope with stressors. A traumatic incident occurred when unkempt, impudent white girls approached Momma to mock her, a display of disrespect that Momma would never tolerate from her own family. Young Maya watched helplessly as her grandmother stood her ground, and did not defend herself but instead quietly uttered under her breath. Maya, the young spiritual apprentice observing her grandmother's faith in action, could hear her elder singing, "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more."Maya saw that faith serves as a shield against the slings and arrows of a hard life, and she concluded that "whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won" (p. 27). This indelible experience, witnessing how faith allows one to endure suffering and enables one to salvage spiritual victory from the jaws of defeat, gave Maya a deep metaphor to grasp the essential theme of death and resurrection. While Momma provides spiritual discipline and strength, Maya's older brother, Bailey, provides an unconditional love that creates in Maya a more balanced, healthy spirituality. Bailey is Maya's companion and supporter. In a most eloquent passage (p. 19), Maya writes: "Of all the needs . . . a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God. My pretty Black brother was my Kingdom Come." While Momma embodies God's omnipotence and absoluteness, Bailey incarnates God's unconditional, loving acceptance. Others, too, contribute to Maya's spirituality, such as Louise,Maya's first childhood friend, and Mrs. Flowers, the aristocrat of Black Stamps who makes Maya "proud to be Negro" (p. 79).
Angelou's journey illustrates developmental trends in faith development (e.g., Fowler). In middle childhood, Angelou has a "mythic-literal" faith "absorbed" from her family; Deuteronomy with its rigid laws is her favorite book of the Bible. Later in childhood, Maya experiences growing skepticism and questioning about her community's faith norms. As Maya approaches adolescence, a revival meeting generates doubt in her, as she is confused by worshipping God in a tent with a dirt floor, and she wondered, "Would God the Father allow His only Son to mix with this crowd of cotton pickers and maids, washerwomen and handymen?" The book is a window into the child's soulful struggles with the worth of herself and her people in God's eyes. The book continues through adolescent struggles, and a more personal "individuativereflective" orientation begins to emerge as she wrestles with sexuality, vocation, self-esteem, and changing interpersonal relations.
This wonderful autobiography is a study of resilience, of the child's capacity to not only survive but even thrive amid adversity. Maya's spirituality, shaped by many forces, is the fertile soil in which this resilience grows. This is a superb book for a mature adolescent group, although sections describing Maya's sexual abuse as a child and her adolescent sexual explorations will disturb some. Boyatzis and Braxton, among other sources, may help educators, parents, or youth ministers use Angelou's book. Childhood autobiographies have become popular, and many emphasize spiritual themes, including Kimmel, Scot, and Hampl. Each eloquently depicts the inextricable links between childhood and adolescent spirituality, and the family, church, community, and time and place in the American landscape. Amidst this fine literature, Angelou's book is perhaps the finest case study of spiritual development.