Lessons Learned While Reading, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

There are few authors that are celebrated throughout their lives and even fewer celebrated after their departure from this earth. Maya Angelou’s untimely passing on May 28, 2014 leaves a gaping hole in the literary world. Angelou leaves behind a wealth of life lessons that will span generations. It seems almost unfair to choose just one of Angelou’s amazing works to derive these lessons from and even more imbalanced to select only five lessons. In this case, I have chosen my favorite work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is my pleasure to share with you the following lessons Maya Angelou leaves behind.

Lesson One: The Healing Power of Literature. As a young child, Maya Angelou finds comfort in the fantasy world that authors, such as William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, provide. After Maya is raped, she refuses to speak, choosing to remain silent. Mrs. Bertha Flowers suggests that Maya rediscover her voice through literature and poetry. Maya begins to speak again by quoting famous words of other writers. Without the healing power of literature, future generations would have missed Angelou’s inspiring words. Without the escape that literature provides, Maya may have never become the voice that readers take solace in today.

Lesson Two: Perseverance. Although there are moments of self-doubt, Maya’s character never complains; she simply pushes forth. There are times when the reader would not blame Maya for wanting to quit, to give up, to take a step back from her family issues and to stop her brave confrontation with racism. However, as great people always do, Maya perseveres and continues to make a life for herself by becoming the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Through the birth of her son she finds a place where she truly belongs. It is this type of unwavering perseverance that makes Maya a steadfast character throughout the novel as well as throughout literary history.

Lesson Three: Self-Realization. Throughout the autobiography, Maya feels displaced from her family, robbed of her voice by sexual assault and unwanted because of the color of her skin. By the turn of the final page, Maya finds comfort in her groundbreaking employment and in the birth of her son. For the first time in her autobiography, Maya realizes that she is just as important as everyone else. Maya realizes that she has special, undeniable love to give and love to receive in life. As readers, we know Maya is talented and special and it is a monumental experience to be present when she comes to this realization. Through Maya Angelou’s self-realization as a young woman, readers for generations will come to love themselves for exactly who they are.

Lesson Four: The Importance of a Confidant. Maya always has one person in which she can turn: her brother Bailey. Maya decides as an adult to be called Maya because this is the name her brother called her as a child. In another act of sibling devotion, Maya seeks his advice when she becomes pregnant. Through Bailey’s cutting sense of humor and charm, he protects Maya’s secret as well as shields her from the racism they both face. Maya uses Bailey as a confidant to create a sense of stability in their ever-changing lives. Their inside jokes and love of poetry and literature, form a deep connection that the reader will not forget. In our ever-changing society, it is of importance to have a special confidant relationship as did Maya and Bailey. As is the case of Maya Angelou’s life, there is nothing we cannot accomplish with guidance from our own personal cheering section.

Lesson Five: You Never Know What the Future Holds. As a young child, Maya could only dream of a life without discrimination. In fact, she could only dream of a better life for herself. Young Maya knew she had potential and we as readers know she grew up to be a professor, a mother, an author, a producer, a filmmaker, and a civil rights activists just to name a few. It is a gift that as readers we have the privilege to see and to understand Maya as a fragile yet strong, quiet yet precocious, and lost yet found child. Using Maya Angelou’s example, if we work hard and let nothing stand in our way we can reach any goal. It is an important reminder that we never know what our own futures may hold.

It is not only through Maya Angelou’s literary works but through the lessons she leaves behind her legacy of wisdom and fortitude continues to live on.