I couldn’t let Feminist February pass me by without Maya Angelou making an appearance. Angelou is one of those authors that I’ve always been meaning to read, but somehow never gotten around to it. The Feminist February reading challenge gives me the perfect excuse to finally read some of Angelou’s work.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s debut memoir, described as both joyous and painful. Angelou’s writing is poetic and strong, her descriptions of her early life vivid and honest.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
At 8 years old, Angelou was raped by her stepfather. Her description of the first time he abused her, where she remembers how she’d longed to be held, to be loved, and, in her childish mind, she confused abuse with love. Such honesty takes a huge amount of strength, and I’m in awe of Angelou, not only for her beautiful, evocative writing, but also her ability to tell her sad tale, wrought with raw emotion, with such clarity.
Angelou’s story also talks of the divide between black and white people. The segregation, the poverty, the culture. Angelou speaks of the racism endured by her grandmother, but also her profound respect for this woman who took her and her brother, Bailey, in, and made them her own. It’s difficult to read of the violence the children suffered at the hands of the adults in their lives – as someone who was physically abused as a child, I cannot brush off a child receiving “a beating” or being whipped for some small transgression, no matter how commonplace it might have been. But Angelou’s story is important, harrowing, and brave. It ends up abruptly with another shocking twist, which means I’ll just have to read the rest of her books.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has been on several banned books lists because some people are too ignorant to listen when a woman tells you her story. I listened to Angelou, and I, too, know why the caged bird sings. I’m no longer a caged bird, but I remember the feeling well, as would anyone who has experienced abuse or neglect or oppression. Listen to Angelou’s tale.