Maya Angelou’s editor, Robert Loomis, tricked her into writing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. When he first requested a book about her childhood, she said no, to which Loomis apparently responded ‘It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible.’*
Apparently reverse psychology worked on Maya Angelou.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was published. It was the first of what would eventually be five volumes of Angelou’s memoirs.
Autobiography as literature basically means that these are tales from Maya’s life with a little poetic license attached. So basically the chronology is accurate but certain events – like the time the vicar’s false teeth shot out – sadly might not be true. In addition, the intention of the book is not only to tell Angelou’s story specifically, but to give voice to girls like her, growing up in black communities in the impoverished South of America in the 1930s.
Angelou begins the story of her life when she’s three years old, and her parents have sent her and her older brother, Bailey to live with their grandmother, Momma, in Stamps, Arkansas after the break down of their marriage. Stamps is basically terrible. It’s southern America at the height of the depression. Racism is deeply ingrained and segregation complete. The only traces of hope to be found emerge during the hymns sung in church, but outside of those fleeting moments the people of Stamps can’t even imagine a better life. Lynchings happen terrifyingly close by, so people live in a state of constant fear. There’s this one episode where Maya and Momma hide her uncle in an outside cupboard covered by a heap of potatoes for the night to keep him safe.
The young Maya Angelou, who at this time is still going by her full name Marguerite, moves around a lot. When she’s eight years old her mother decides that she wants her children living with her again in St Louis. They don’t stay with her for long. Eight-year-old Marguerite is raped by her mother’s lover, Mr Freeman, and the family can’t cope with her resulting trauma, so she is sent back to Stamps and Momma.
This book is a really difficult read. I found myself wanting to reach into the pages and wrap my arms around Marguerite. Nobody knows how to help her. Her abuser, Mr Freeman, is murdered after the court case (probably by one of Marguerite’s uncles), which only compounds the feelings of guilt she was already experiencing about her rape. She’s trapped in an unclassified space. She doesn’t feel like a child any more, but cannot be treated as an adult. She fears behaving in a way that could be thought ‘womanish’ in case it reminds those around of the events in St Louis, but can’t always behave like a child. Growing up, Marguerite is in a continuous struggle with her identity.
What eventually comes to the rescue is literature, a life raft presented to her by Mrs Flowers, a woman Marguerite presents as the Fancy Lady of Stamps. Having heard of Marguerite’s silence during school time, Mrs Flowers determines to intervene. She has Marguerite memorise poetry to explain to her the importance of the spoken word and the hope that can be found in self-expression. Angelou writes of Mrs Flowers that she ‘… has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.’ Marguerite dwells a lot on beauty, something she greatly admires but believes she can never have. Mrs Flowers is the first person in her life Marguerite idealises and can actually become, because what she loves about her is her education. Literature – both the consumption and creation of it – allows the caged bird to sing.
There is so much in this book. It’s a lot more than one blog post can contain. A few years after her lessons with Mrs Flowers, Marguerite and Bailey return to live with their mother once again, in San Francisco this time. The city is the first place Marguerite feels truly at home. She falls in love with it. A few years in, she becomes the city’s first black streetcar conductor. It’s where she gives birth to her son at age sixteen, the event the book ends with.
‘Coming-of-age’ is such a cliché term now, but it nevertheless fits this book pretty perfectly. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a quest for identity by a young black woman growing up on the cusp of the civil rights movement.