Raped at eight years old; pregnant at 17. Not that great a start in life, particularly for a black American female living in Arkansas decades before the Civil Rights movement. But Maya Angelou is nothing if not strong. And it’s that strength of mind and character that comes forcefully to life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first part of her six volume autobiography.
It’s a coming of age book which traces her life from the age of three when she is sent with her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after the breakup of her parent’s marraige. Living in the family general store, Angelou witnesses the realities of racial discrimination. One night she helps to hide a neighbour when alerted to possible Klan activity in the neighbourhood; another time she recounts the way a ‘powhitetrash’ girl taunts her grandmother, lifting up her skirts to insult her. Angelou herself is subjected to humiliation and racism. Working as a domestic servant to earn some pocket money, she is robbed of her name because Margurite (her birth name) isn’t considered by her white employer to be appropriate for one of her kind. When she experiences the intense pain of a rotten tooth and is taken to a dentist in the nearest town, he refuses to treat her because of her colour.
Set against this however is the way Angelou portrays the deeply held values of family, culture and faith in her community. And although much of what she relates is life at its most brutal, she is equally adept at describing its lighter moments whether its the uncontrollable laughter that bursts forth in the middle of a church sermon or the joy of discovering Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and James Weldon Johnson. It was through these authors and the careful nurturing of a family friend that helped facilitate her recovery from the traumatic effects of the sexual abuse and rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou became mute for almost five years after that incident, convinced that somehow she was partly to blame.
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….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.
Much of the book is episodic, with events related in a non linear fashion, but the thread that holds them together is Maya’s growing sense of identity. She progresses from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual with a strong sense of who she is and who responds to racism by refusing to acknowledge its existence. As a sixteen year old she becomes determined to be “in control of her fate’ by getting a job as a conductor on a trolley car, eventually becoming the first black person to hold such a job.
But though she matures, she reflects that the journey is not yet over for though she has graduated from school has beaten the odds to get some financial independence, and has become a mother, there is still a part of her that is unsure of what her journey has really meant.
I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has long been on my bookshelf . I included it in my Classics Club list as a way of motivating me into actually reading it. And I am so glad I did, but only sorry I didn’t read it earlier.