“I left the room because, and only because, we had said all we could say. The unsaid words pushed roughly against the thoughts that we had no craft to verbalize, and crowded the room to uneasiness.”~ Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou has been one of the most banned authors in the United States of America. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir about a Black girl and her brother growing up in the 1930's and 1940's. Initially they were both sent by her parents to Arkansas. They had to travel alone by train from California to join their grandmother in Arkansas.
Maya Angelou fell in love with Shakespeare at an early age. When she graduated from elementary school her loving brother gave her a book by Edgar Allan Poe. This was not a trivial gift. He’d had to save money for many months to get it for her.
Maya’s writing is intense and bold without being sentimental. “Fearlessness” and “bravery” are the two words I would use if I had to define Maya’s personality. There is humor and sadness in her stories, but the most captivating feature is her honesty along with the fact that she never dwells on self-pity. She is not afraid of revealing both the dark and the charming aspects of her childhood and teenage years.
This was the time of the Great Depression and even though their grandmother owned land and houses, she taught her grandchildren to lead a frugal lifestyle. She also worked hard to save her store.
“Momma spent many nights figuring on our tablets, slowly. She was trying to find a way to keep her business going, although her customers had no money.”
They were among the few Negro families not on relief, and Maya and Bailey were the only children in the town who ate powdered eggs every day and drank powdered milk.
“Although there was generosity in the Negro neighborhood, it was indulged on pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given by Black people to other Blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver. A fact which made the giving or receiving a rich exchange.
“I couldn’t understand whites and where they got the right to spend money so lavishly. Of course, I knew God was white too, but no one could have made me believe He was prejudiced.”
Her life anecdotes show that the cage was made of prejudices and ignorance, and this cage dictated the apartheid behaviors that the reader will find revolting. One of the shocking scenes I will never forget is that of little Maya suffering from an excruciating toothache.
“The pain was beyond the bailiwick of crushed aspirins or oil of cloves. Only one thing could help me, so I prayed earnestly that I’d be allowed to sit under the house and have a building collapse on my left jaw.”
Her grandmother took her to the nearest dentist: a white man. His name was Dr Lincoln. Maya’s grandmother had lent money to Blacks and Whites alike during the Depression and Dr. Lincoln had benefited from her kindness. Yet when her grandmother asked him to address Maya’s toothache, he turned them down.
“My policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”
Needless to say, Maya and her grandmother wound up travelling to another town to get the urgent care she needed from a colored dentist.
When Maya was eight years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and she unfolds the story in this memoir through the eyes of the child that she once was, revealing her confusion, guilt and fear. This outrageous situation stirred in me the same disturbing emotions I had when I read “Down by the River” by Edna O’Brien, a novel I read two years ago. I never had the courage to write about it on my blog. (I think I will do it in one of my future posts.).
“The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness.”
I appreciate this imaginary visit even more when she weaves social cues into the physical landscape, for she provides deep insights into her personal situation:
“To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. The fog wasn’t simply the steamy vapors off the bay caught and penned in by hills, but a soft breath of anonymity that shrouded and cushioned the bashful traveler. I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco. Safe in my protecting arrogance, I was certain that no one loved her as impartially as I.”
Interestingly, her words had the power to foresee the resistance that her book would encounter:
“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.”
Yet the bird did not stop singing. Maya published more memoirs and five poetry collections.