Posts Tagged ‘Maya Angelou’

Mom & Me & Mom is the seventh and final book in the sequence of autobiographies by Maya Angelou which begin with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was back in April last year that I started by reading (actually rereading) that first volume, and a mini reading project with two good friends Liz and Meg was born. Having now completed the seven volumes of autobiography I may go on to read some of the essays – as I know Liz is planning on doing. This final volume is a little different to the previous six – published only a year before Maya died at the age of eighty six.

The previous volume A Song Flung up to Heaven finishes when Maya is a little over forty, and in a sense that’s where these autobiographies leave her – as this volume never really takes us beyond that point, at least not in any great detail. However, this volume is still a satisfying conclusion to the series of autobiographies – for this book is about Maya’s mother, and Maya’s relationship with her mother. So, while this volume is still about Maya Angelou, it is mostly about a tiny, fierce little woman called Vivian Baxter.

“Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.”

It’s well known that Maya and her brother were sent to their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas to live when Maya was three. A short visit to her mother when she was eight ended in Maya’s rape by her mother’s partner, and a trauma that took years to undo. It wasn’t until Maya was thirteen that she went to California to live permanently with her mother – who was at that time little more than a stranger. Maya remembers her nervousness that she wouldn’t be good enough for this beautiful little mother.

“She looked around and saw me. I wanted to sink into the ground. I wasn’t pretty or even cute. That woman who looked like a movie star deserved a better looking daughter than me. I knew it and was sure she would know it as soon as she saw me.

‘Maya, Marguerite, my baby.’ Suddenly I was wrapped in her arms and in her perfume. She pushed away and looked at me. ‘Oh baby, you’re so beautiful and so tall. You look like your daddy and me. I’m so glad to see you.’”

Vivian Baxter Johnson, Maya’s mother had been born into a tough family, her brothers would beat you up soon as look at you, and Vivian had learned to fight even as a child. Vivian had grown up beautiful, met and fallen in love with Maya’s father and moved to California. When her marriage ended she sent the children away, and when they came back to her a decade of growing up apart meant that a lot of healing still had to take place, a lot of trust and acceptance be earned. Vivian Baxter was an extraordinary woman, a tiny, fierce little woman with a lot of influence, a trained nurse, she had also spent time in the Merchant Marines and as a businesswoman ran casinos in Alaska. She seems to have known, maybe instinctively that she had to give Maya time, that their mother daughter relationship was a fragile thing that would need time to grow, Vivian gave Maya the time and space she needed, yet she also gave her love – as it is above all love that oozes from these pages, love, and unquestioning support. Vivian Baxter Johnson, surely more than anyone else, helped shape the woman that Maya Angelou became.

“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.”

When Maya first came to live with her mother, she was unable to call her that – she searched around for a suitable title, and came up with Lady – it stuck, and for years she continued to call her mother Lady. Some years later, she was able finally to begin to call Vivian mother. By then an incredible bond had formed between them, for she had been supported and encouraged in everything. Whether it was in her desire to become the first black, female trolly bus conductress, becoming a mother herself at just seventeen, or travelling the world in Porgy and Bess, at every stage, at every moment Vivian had her back.

When Maya married Tosh, Vivian knew it was a bad idea, when Tosh tried his best to push Vivian out of their lives Vivian kept coming back. When the marriage ended she was there to support her daughter without saying I told you so. She helped Maya with her dance costumes, and took care of her son Guy when Maya was travelling. When Maya is horrifically beaten by a boyfriend, locked in his rented room, unable to summon help, it is Vivian who tracks her down and saves her.

“She felt guilty like all mothers who blame themselves when terrible events happen to their children.

I could not speak or even touch her but I have never loved her more than at that moment, in that suffocating, stinking room.”

Later when Maya was working on a screenplay in Sweden, feeling ostracized by the actors with whom she was working, Maya called her mother, and Vivian knowing her daughter needed her, dropped everything, and got on the next plane.

Inevitably, Vivian, gets old, and sick and Maya tells that story movingly too. Showing as much understanding to the needs of her ageing mother, as the younger Vivian had shown to the teenage Maya who had just arrived in California. Later, after her death a park in Stockton, California was named Vivian ‘Lady B’ Baxter park in her honour.

Mom & Me & Mom is an incredibly affectionate portrait of a mother daughter relationship, it is written with a lot of love and great honesty.

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A Song Flung up to Heaven is the sixth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. My reading buddies Liz and Meg were a little bit a head of me, though I think we will all be starting on book seven soon. This volume is one of the slimmer volumes in the set – but it is every bit as addictively readable as the others – and I finished it in a day.

“Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you.”

This volume starts where the previous one left off, with Maya’s return to America from Ghana where she has spent a couple of years. She has left her son Guy behind, at his insistence. It is time for another chapter.

It is 1965 and Maya is returning to an America in which the civil rights movement has exploded. After meeting him for the second time while in Ghana, Maya has decided to put her energies into working with Malcolm X’s organisation in New York. However, before going to New York, Maya travels to California to see her mother and brother – and while she is there Malcolm X is assassinated. Maya is absolutely devasted, but while Malcolm’s brutal death leaves her feeling traumatised and lost – it is the reactions of other black Americans that leaves her really bewildered. She had expected a huge outpouring of grief and rage – and there wasn’t one. For a little while she really doesn’t know what she is going to do. We see Maya lost and a bit more vulnerable in this volume, needing the support of her mother and in particular her brother Bailey to whom she often turns in times of difficulty.

She gets a job as a market researcher in Watts, California. In August of that year, the Watts riots took place – and Maya was a witness to the violence, looting and chaos that took over the suburb for five long days. She walks through the riots, prepared if necessary to get arrested – even though she has done nothing – yet she passes through unharmed and unnoticed.

“Nothing’s wrong with going to jail for something you believe in. Remember, jail was made for people. Not horses.”

It is after this that Maya begins to spend some time on her own writing. She is encouraged by no lesser person than James Baldwin. She is given financial support by a friend – who only wants to allow her to write. She works on some drama and later starts writing poetry quite seriously.

Martin Luther King Jnr’s poverty march campaign is due to get going, and Maya is contacted by someone who askes her to join the campaign, she will again be working for Martin Luther King Jnr – if she accepts. Maya does accept – but she says she won’t be able to join the campaign until after her birthday as she is planning a big party. The year is 1968 – and her birthday Maya explains is on the fourth of April. I must admit I gasped out loud here! I mean what were the chances? – especially after what happened with Malcolm X, when she had missed being with him by a sudden change of plans. Again Maya’s grief and bewilderment is palpable. This extract leapt out at me – I think most of us know exactly how this feels, though I felt Maya expressed it particularly well.

“Death of a beloved flattens and dulls everything. Mountains and skyscrapers and grand ideas are brought down to eye level or below. Great loves and large hates no longer cast such huge shadows or span so broad a distance. Connections do not adhere so closely, and important events lose some of their glow.”

James Baldwin was one of a number of friends who helped Maya rouse herself again from her own terrible despair after King’s death. She is sustained in part by her writing and the good relationships she has in the people around her. It seems she has often been very fortunate in her friends.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven is an extraordinary portrait of an important period in American civil rights, and for that reason perhaps it has become one of my favourite of the six volumes I have read so far, they are all fantastic though. This volume although only the sixth of seven seems to mark the end of her autobiography really, as the seventh volume, Mom & Me & Mom is really an examination of her relationship with her grandmother and mother, and I believe goes back over some of the ground already covered in these books. I will be reading that one soon, and I am looking forward to meeting up with Maya’s Arkansas grandmother again.

As we leave Maya Angelou at the end of this volume, she is starting to write the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is just a little over 40 years old, and will we know live to be more than eighty. It does seem a shame that she leaves us here – when we know so much more came after. I know there are other books available books of essays in particular – so I may need to explore some of those in the future.

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I am a bit behind my two reading buddies – Liz and our friend Meg – in our Maya Angelou read-a-long. All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes is the fifth volume in her remarkable autobiography – so just two to go.

In a month thick with reading challenges – this one fitted nicely into nonfiction November – a challenge I don’t usually do so well at – but have managed two this month.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

This volume takes up the story where the last one left off – Maya is in Ghana with her son Guy who has just been involved in a terrible car crash leaving him with serious injuries. Maya is finding it hard to rid herself of the anger she feels toward the young man who caused the accident – Guy on the other hand is much more laid back about the whole thing, despite being almost totally encased in plaster.

Being in Africa is an incredible experience for Maya – and she begins to settle down to life in Ghana – thinking perhaps she may never go back to America. While Guy recovers from his injuries, and then begins to settle happily into Ghanaian student life Maya shelves her plans to go to Liberia and begins to put feelers out for jobs in Ghana. Wherever she goes Maya makes friends and connections, and here it is no different. Most of those she is surrounded by are black Americans who have moved to Ghana.

Like many other black Americans at the time, Maya saw emigrating to an African country as a kind of homecoming, in time she realised it was nothing of the sort – that the mother Africa idea was a myth. The relationship between people emigrating to African countries and the people of those countries proving to be more complex. The Ghanaians aren’t always that welcoming toward the black Americans – some of whom almost expected a welcoming committee at the airport. It is easy to see though how for people coming from sixties America with its myriad prejudices and history of slavery – arriving in an African country must have felt incredible. However, while working in the university Maya also encounters some racism toward black Americans from members of the European community. How depressing that must have been to encounter the same kind of commentary on African soil.

There is a visit to Ghana by Malcolm X – who Maya had met before when she was working for Martin Luther King – since when Maya had become disillusioned by King’s message of peace and nonviolence. Now she is attracted by Malcom X’s message – and by the time the book ends she is thinking of going to work for him on her eventual return to the States.

“My policy was to keep quiet when Reverend King’s name was mentioned. I didn’t want to remind my radical friends of my association with the peacemaker. It was difficult, but I managed to dispose of the idea that my silence was a betrayal. After all, when I worked for him, I had been deluded into agreeing with Reverend King that love would cure America of its pathological illnesses, that indeed our struggle for equal rights would redeem the country’s baleful history. But all the prayers, sit-ins, sacrifices, jail sentences, humiliation, insults and jibes had not borne out Reverend King’s vision. When maddened White citizens and elected political leaders vowed to die before they would see segregation come to an end, I became more resolute in rejecting nonviolence and more adamant in denying Martin Luther King.”

During her time in Ghana Maya gets the chance to travel a little outside of the city into the countryside. It was a fascinating for me to learn something about Ghana a country I know very little about, Angelou writes so beautifully and recounts her experiences so vividly. Here she sees the places where slaves were held before the were shipped out of the country – it is a poignant and stirring reminder of that terrible history.

Maya has finally matured by her experience with men in the past – when she meets yet another large, man who she finds attractive and fascinating, the reader might be forgiven for shaking their head. However, Maya has learned something, and when the man offers to buy her a fridge(!) and tells her he wants her to move to another county with him, she sensibly doesn’t allow her head to be turned completley. She is an older (though still only in her thirties) woman, and her son is also growing away from her. She faced the possibility of losing him when he had his accident – but in the end she sees Guy is merely growing up and away from her – it is a sad thought for her that he may not need her anymore. They have been so much to one another in the past.

“we had been each other’s home and centre for seventeen years. He could die if he wanted to and go off to wherever dead folks go, but I, I would be left without a home.”

 Africa it seems doesn’t hold all the answers for Maya – though it has clearly had a profound effect on her. So we leave Maya preparing to return soon to America. What ever lies ahead for Maya I know it will be incredible – reading these books has shown me how very little I knew about Maya Angelou’s life. No wonder she had to write seven volumes of her autobiography.

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The fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography; The Heart of a Woman sees Maya becoming immersed in the world of writers and artists in Harlem, going on to work in the civil rights movement and becoming involved with African freedom fighters. I have been reading these volumes alongside two good friends, Liz, who many of you will know from her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home, and our non-blogging friend Meg. It’s been lovely to be able to discuss the book with them – each of us I think impressed by her extraordinary resilience.

This volume takes up Maya’s story a little while after the end of the last book where we left her working in Hawaii. Following on from her tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess, and her showbusiness work in Hawaii, Maya was living for a short time in a commune with her son Guy. It’s just a stop gap though, soon Maya and Guy are on the move again (they move frequently). Guy is a teenager now, growing up and keen to take on the responsibility he believes he should as a young man. Maya has reason to fear for Guy, the constant moving around means he has few friends, and as a teenager he is at risk of being targeted by other black youths.

“They were young black men, preying on other young black men. They had been informed, successfully, that they were worthless, and everyone who looked like them was equally without worth. Each sunrise brought a day without hope and each evening the sun set on a day lacking in achievement. Whites, who ruled the world, owned the air and food and jobs and schools and fair play, had refused to share with them any of life’s necessities–and somewhere, deeper than their consciousness, they believed the whites were correct. They, the black youth, young lords of nothing, were born without value and would creep, like blinded moles, their lives long in the darkness, under the earth, chewing on roots, driven far from the light.”

For a while, Maya goes back to singing, but she in unsatisfied with her work. She is aware of the work being done in Harlem, the efforts of Martin Luther King. She decides to go the New York, and discover Harlem for herself.

“It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom.”

In Harlem she is introduced to the Harlem Writer’s Guild, where she meets Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstone that I read last year. This is one of a number of extraordinary encounters in the book – including an ageing Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Soon Maya is working for a key civil rights group in Harlem, helping produce a review show to raise vital funds. Her focus and organisational skills impress, and it isn’t long before Maya is running the Harlem office of the SCLC.

It is here in New York that Maya is introduced to African freedom fighters, she gets swept up in their passion and politics, she is inspired by their similar causes. It is around this time that Maya meets yet another unsuitable man Vusumzi Make an African freedom fighter – who says he wants to marry her. Maya is engaged to another man at the time, so she has a decision to make. She finishes the relationship with her fiancé and throws her lot in with Vus – they don’t actually marry legally – but Maya travels with him to London and Egypt. Her new role as an African freedom fighter’s wife – is not quite what she expects, Vus is a charmer who racks up debts and expects Maya to act like an African wife – but Maya is a capable, independent woman, frustrated by inactivity she starts to feel jealous at the influence of Vus on her son. As a reader, we know this is another relationship that is doomed from the start – but Maya tries to make it work for Guy’s sake.

While Maya is in Africa she learns how different black Americans and black Africans are – there is also a difference in how she is treated as a black American. Africa is an emotional experience. Reminding Maya as she flies from Egypt to Ghana about the millions of African people stolen from their homeland by the evils of the slave trade. At the airport in Accra Maya and Guy are surrounded by a wonderful sea of black people, one thing they notice though is that some of these people are actually wearing the uniforms of airline pilots.

“Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fuelled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.”

In Ghana, Maya and Guy face more challenges when Guy is involved in a terrible car accident. How Maya always manages to land on her feet – walking calmly away from difficult situations is incredible. She doesn’t always make the best decisions in her personal life – and it is clear that her son was affected adversely by the constant moving around and the times when Maya had to leave him in the care of others when she was working. However, she is utterly devoted to her son, and everything she does is with the best of intentions, and she is always honest.

What next for Maya? Goodness knows, there are three more volumes to go.

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August is of course Women in Translation month – but for some of us it is also All Virago All August, a month in which we read vmc books and books from similar publishers like Dean Street Press and Persephone. I have only managed one Virago book so far, the third volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. I have been reading this alongside Liz and our friend Meg, as ever, I am a bit behind as Liz has already managed to review this one. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas focuses on Maya Angelous’s first marriage, her relationship with her young son and the start of her life in showbusiness. 

“Ivonne said, “You know white people are strange. I don’t even know if they know why they do things.” Ivonne had grown up in a small Mississippi town, and I, in a smaller town in Arkansas. Whites were as constant in our history as the seasons and as unfamiliar as affluence.”

Race plays a part in this part of her story too, as for perhaps the first time in her life Maya must learn to build relationships with white people. White people have only featured in her life quite negatively at this point, she spent a lot of her youth growing up in small town Arkansas – definitely a place where white and black didn’t mix. It’s understandable that she is wary of people’s motivations, can she trust them? will they really understand her? So, when a young white woman offers Maya a job in her favourite record shop she is at first rather taken aback.

“Early mornings were given over to Bartok and Schoenberg. Midmorning I treated myself to the vocals of Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Bull Moose Jackson. A piroshki from the Russian delicatessen next door was lunch and then the giants of bebop flipped through the air. Charlie Parker and Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Al Haig and Howard McGhee. Blues belonged to late afternoons and the singers’ lyrics of lost love spoke to my solitude.”

Maya loves music, it is the perfect job and it allows her to take her son out of weekly childcare and move him back in with her full time. It is here that she meets the man she will marry – a white man of Greek heritage. At first everything seems great. Her son gets on well with his step-father – quickly thinking of him as daddy. However, Maya’s husband is clearly a controlling presence in her life – and soon things are not as happy as they were. Maya has the spirit to get out before things escalate – a single mother again, she needs well paid work quickly.

Maya gets a job dancing in a club – it all sounds a little sleazy, and there is quite a racket going on with drinks. Customers are supposed to buy the dancers drinks, and Maya works out how the customers are being conned and explains the racket to the customers when they offer her a drink.  Her honesty makes her very popular with the customers but not with the other women, who jealously conspire to have her kicked out. Maya is always astonishingly resilient, and it’s not long before she is back on her feet – dancing again. This time she is dancing in proper shows, and it is at this time that she adopts the name Maya Angelou – Maya the name her brother called her and Angelou a corruption of her married name.

When Maya goes to see a performance of Porgy and Bess she is utterly blown away. This all black cast of talented singers, actors and dancers – she feels like she has come home. So, when the chance comes for her to take a small part in the touring production of Porgy and Bess, she jumps at it. It means leaving her son in the care of her mother for months – but she feels it is a chance she can’t pass up. It certainly is an incredible opportunity for the company will be touring Europe and North Africa – places Maya could have probably only dreamed of visiting at this time in her life.

In Maya’s company we travel across Europe seeing these places with Maya’s wide eyed wonder and intelligent curiosity. She naturally wants to experience as much as she can.  Starting out in Canada and then on to Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice, Zagreb, Alexandria, and Cairo – with the company of Porgy and Bess Maya really gets to see something of the world, have adventures and make friends.

“I was really in Italy. Not Maya Angelou, the person of pretensions and ambitions, but me, Marguerite Johnson, who had read about Verona and the sad lovers while growing up in a dusty Southern village poorer and more tragic than the historic town in which I now stood. I was so excited at the incredible turn of events which had brought me from a past of rejection, of slammed doors and blind alleys, of dead-end streets and culs-de-sac, into the bright sun of Italy, into a town made famous by one of the world’s greatest writers.”

 She discovers that in lots of places black people are treated differently than in North America, in fact it seems that black Americans are rather preferred to white Americans. However, she has been away from her son for a long time, and so the time comes when she realises she must leave the company and go home.

On her arrival home, we see how her young son has been affected by her long absence, nervous and hating her to be out of his sight – Maya knows she won’t be able to leave him again. She re-builds her relationship with her son with love and understanding and some guilt over what she has done to him by leaving.

We finally leave Maya and her son – who has now changed his name from Clyde to Guy together in Hawaii as Maya undertakes another performance job, this time though, insisting that her son travels with her.

I had to remind myself that at this point in her life Maya is still a young woman, she has done so much. Her continuing determination and resilience shines as brightly as in the first two volumes – and I am really looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

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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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