I know why the caged bird sings

by Maya Angelou

Of course, this is one of those books that you ‘should’ read.  And maybe this is why I didn’t read it until now!  I picked up a (surprisingly clean, probably unread) secondhand copy a year or two ago and it has been sitting on my shelf since then.  Maybe it was reading other books about the African American experience (Sacred Hunger, The Underground Railroad) that made me turn to this book just now.

Whatever the trigger, I am so glad that I did.  This is a life-affirming story.  Yes, Maya suffered some uncomfortable and potentially damaging experiences at a very early age: rape at age eight, driving her intoxicated father back across the border from a Mexico trip at fifteen, a physical fight with her stepmother… and yet her zest of life shines through.  Here is one bright, determined young woman who, despite these isolated incidences of abuse, was mainly raised in a caring and disciplined environment by her grandmother, ‘Momma’.

Momma is a rock of the black community in a the segregated small town of Stamps in Arkansas.  Maya experiences one episode after another of racial prejudice from a very early age, ranging through being ignored, despised, hated and threatened.  She does not flinch at describing her experiences and the emotions that they induce.  A most vivid recollection is the way the white woman in whose household she works part-time aged about eleven decides, on the prompting of a friend, to shorten Margaret (Marguerite)’s name to ‘Mary’. Marguerite is outraged, deliberately smashes a prized object of her employer’s, and leaves – but not before her employer, in her anger and frustration, shows remorse for the misuse of her name.

It is vivid stories like this, together with a real sense of the atmosphere of the place and time (though descriptive passages are few), that carry the reader along.  As well, of course, as Maya’s compelling personality.

Not sure I will get through all six volumes of this autobiography.  But I certainly intend to read the next one or two.