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Posts Tagged ‘Maya Angelou’

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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