I picked up my copy of this book just 11 days before Maya Angelou died last spring. I’d always had this book on my list, but I’d never found a reason to pick it up and for some reason at the library book sale last year I finally added it to my pile. I knew I wanted to read it because it is one of those books that is mentioned by everyone and has such a place in American culture, but not as widely read as I probably assumed.
As I read the novel I was floored at the breadth of experience Angelou faced before she turned 17. At times the novel reminded me a lot of The Color Purple and Bastard Out of Carolina, but I have a feeling both Alice Walker and Dorothy Allison were inspired/influenced by this. That being said, of the three this is the most profound work. Perhaps because it is explicitly an autobiography (and Bastard is semi-autobiographical and Purple is a fictional novel).
I struggled with the auto-biographical nature of this for a couple of reasons. Ultimately, however this doesn’t detract from the beauty and power. The main reason I struggled with this was because Maya Angelou has always been Maya Angelou for my lifetime. Not Maya. Not Ms. Angelou. Not Marguerite Johnson (her given name). This for some reason made the work feel almost as a piece of fiction. It also was easier to digest the unsavory aspects of the novel for me, as unfortunate and insular as that may be.
What this novel did for me, was it forced me to look at my privilege and place in the world. It wasn’t as eye-opening as it would have been if I had to read this in high school still living in the South, but it was still a needed experience. The prime example of this is, when I read the following passage,
“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.” (153)
This was when my thoughts turned immediately to, “and this is when she became an angry black woman.” Which flew in the face of everything I knew about Maya Angelou being an incredibly well spoken, well-educated and artistic beyond doubt. I then read the following passage just a few pages later and hung my head for jumping to stereotypes.
“We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” (156)
This may have been the only time that I jumped to a stereotype confusion, but it was not the only time Maya Angelou provided a broader a much-needed educational reminder/experience to me. The beauty of her experience, is that she went through so much in just her first 17 years that I can’t imagine what else she went through and what she covered in her other books.
The other time that Maya Angelou said something that seriously hit home in today’s climate, was about “blackness” even though she didn’t call it that. Now I have no qualifications to talk about being black, appropriating black culture or even defining it, but reading this passage,
“My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with ‘That’s not unusual.’ But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, ‘It be’s like that sometimes.'” (191)
reminded me of the importance of cultural diversity within the US and defining your own cultural identity.
If there was one thing that shocked me, because I wasn’t expecting it and it made me laugh out loud, was Maya Angelou’s mini-identity crisis toward the end of the novel concerning lesbianism and Radcliff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. The frankness with which her mother discussed her body’s changing shape and Maya’s response was hilariously endearing. It also provided the transition from this work to where I’m assuming the next one will show up.
Recommendation: READ IT. Definitely READ IT. I doubt I will read any of her other autobiographies but I will definitely look into her poetry. This work is such a beautifully written work and tells such an important story about the South and Black women from and in the South.
Opening Line: “I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.”
Closing Line: “She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.” (Whited out. Highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
“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.” (3)
“Turning off or tuning out people was my highly developed art. The custom of letting obedient children be seen but not heard was so agreeable to me that I went one step further: Obedient children should not see or hear if they chose not to do so. I laid a handful of attention on my face and tuned up the sounds in the church.” (34)
“I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.” (170)