Posts Tagged ‘Maya Angelou’

After I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with my book group – I decided to go on and read the rest of Maya Angelou’s autobiography – and Liz and our friend Meg decided to join me. There isn’t any particular time scale for this – so it’s been a couple of months since I read book one which takes us up to when Maya is seventeen and has just given birth to her son.

Gather Together in My Name picks up there, with Maya Angelou a new, young mum, living with her mother. Maya’s mother offers to look after the baby so Maya can return to school, but this she refuses, wanting to stand on her own two feet. She manages to get a job as a creole cook – having never cooked creole in her life – she learns fast. Her son is taken care of while she works, six days a week. She rents her own room for her and her son, moving out of her mother’s house – she never seemed to take the easy route.

This volume is slimmer than I know Why… but every bit as engaging and honest. Its structure is quite fragmentary. However, these short chapters actually seem to make this even more of a quick read – as we follow the young Maya Angelou through a relatively short period of time in mid to late 1940s California. There are a host of memorable and colourful characters who we meet along the way. The people Maya befriend and work alongside – funny old women who care for her son, pimps, prostitutes, and taxi drivers. This is a world that could easily seem bleak – and yet while Angelou never seeks to glamourise the life she led then, neither is it a grim or mournful story. What comes across again, very strongly, is the determination and resilience of this young woman – who with every step she took, was committed to doing the very best she could for herself and her son. At home, in her rented room she revels in the literature of Dostoevsky.

While working in the restaurant Maya meets Johnnie Mae and Beatrice – a lesbian couple who work as Prostitutes. Maya is just eighteen, and the story of how, with some conniving she ends up running a brothel with these two women working for her is told with some humour – she’s totally out of her depth, but at great pains not to show it – earning good money too for a short time.

“Upon reflection, I marvel that no one saw through me enough to bundle me off to the nearest mental institution. The fact that it didn’t happen depended less on my being a good actress than the fact that I was surrounded, as I had been all my life, by strangers.”

When things get a little too hot in California – fearing exposure and the police, Maya runs off to her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas – and I was delighted to meet up with her and Uncle Willy again – albeit very briefly.

“There is a much-loved region in the American fantasy where pale white women float eternally under black magnolia trees, and white men with soft hands brush wisps of wisteria from the creamy shoulders of their lady loves. Harmonious black music drifts like perfume through this precious air, and nothing of a threatening nature intrudes.

The South I returned to, however, was flesh-real and swollen-belly poor.”

Only Maya carries too much of her Californian confidence with her than is tolerated in the South of the 1940s – and her grandmother shoos her off again quite quickly for her own safety as much as anything. A stark reminder for us, how dangerous parts of the US still were for black people at this time.

Of course, as Maya is a young single woman, she embarks on a series of relationships. Despite having had a child, the Maya that is out in the world working in a restaurant is not really very experienced. She finds out the hard way that not all men will tell the truth or have her best interests at heart. She is clearly a young woman who believes in love – and wants to find it.

Back in California Maya again finds herself back in the world of prostitution – only this time she is the prostitute – a sleazy older boyfriend who wants her to call him daddy persuading her he needs her to earn him money for just a few weeks. Time and again fate intervenes – and as Maya starts out on a dark road something brings her back. Her beloved brother Bailey in the midst of a terrible grief giving her the kind of talking to the reader might want to. Her brush with the evils of drug taking shocking her into a stark realisation, a case in point.

I have read somewhere that this is the darkest volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, and I can see why – I wonder if this wasn’t a very painful period in her life to write about. She acknowledges her mistakes and we should remember how very young she was.

Not sure when exactly I will be reading book three – but it won’t be too long. Maya Angelou is such a wonderful writer to spend time with – there is something inspirational about the way she approaches life always stepping out and moving forward, shrugging off what’s gone before. What a woman!

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As our April read my book group chose to read the first volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. It is an absolute classic, and several of us had read it before. I think I read it over thirty years ago, and I am fairly sure that I also read one of the other volumes of the autobiography, though I really had no memory of the books, and can’t be certain which of the other volumes (if any) I read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a simply wonderful memoir of a 1930/40s childhood. Charting her life from when she was three years old; sent with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas to when she is seventeen and pregnant – it is a memoir full of truth, joy, and hope. Of course, part of that truth that had to be told is that of a childhood rape by her mother’s lover, yet even here Angelou’s telling never overwhelms us – she honestly acknowledges the terrible trauma she suffered but shows her own amazing resilience too.

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.”

Her parents having separated, when Maya is three and her beloved brother four they are sent to live with their father’s mother in Stamps Arkansas. Here they are brought up for several years by Mrs Annie Henderson, who they call Momma, and her disabled son Uncle Willie. Momma runs the only black store in the community – it is the heart of the community where everything could be bought – or at least ordered in. She got used to seeing the cotton pickers arriving in the very early morning, full of optimism and chatter, buying their food for the day in the fields. Then later their return, ground down by the back breaking work and the constant disappointment of their day’s pay which was never enough.

The white folks at the other end of the town are a mystery, though as she grows up Maya starts to learn something of their power. Sometimes frightening stories are brought back to the store – and Maya doesn’t understand why the local ‘powhite-trash’ kids speak to her grandmother with such disrespect, openly mocking her. To Maya her grandmother’s word is law – she is a towering presence and a superhero – surely everyone else can see that too? Over the years Maya begins to experience some of the terrible racism of the times, there are whispers of klan activity in the area, a white dentist refuses to treat Maya despite her terrible pain.

Maya Angelou’s story is told mainly in a series of vignettes – stories of the store, of Uncle Willie – of school days and her love of her brother Bailey. A visit from their father is a big event – the seven year old Maya feeling so proud of the big handsome man who is her daddy.

It is their father who takes the children back to their mother who is now in St Louis – living with a man named Mr Freeman. The time in St Louis is cut short following Maya’s abuse at the hands of Mr Freeman – and the children are sent back to Stamps.

“I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.”

Following this incident Maya remains mute for some time, traumatised and guilty by what had happened to her. However, drawing on her own inner reserves of strength and the love and support of her family Maya recovers from this most terrible of childhood traumas.

Maya is a very intelligent young girl, later she discovers a great love of literature, of Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, among others. Again, and again, Maya shows great resilience and determination to achieve and to get on, although she turns away from formal education in her teens. After a few years back in Stamps, again she and Bailey travel to be with their mother – this time in California. Her father is also in California and so Maya has more to do with him, experiencing the vitriol of his horrible girlfriend and a rather odd trip to Mexico. Ultimately, though he lets her down. At sixteen Maya is determined to get a job as a conductress on the trolley buses – despite her mother telling her that no black girl had ever been given a job like that – Maya persists and she gets the job.

“There is nothing a person can’t do, and there should be nothing a human being didn’t care about. It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped for.”

When we leave Maya at the end of this volume she is just seventeen and has just given birth to her son. Her life has already been full, and yet clearly she has a lot more living to do – and an awful lot more to give to the world.

Having now re-read this first glorious volume, I am determined this time to read the rest of it. I think everyone in my book group agreed that Maya Angelou was a quite extraordinary woman.

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