I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been on my mental ‘to read’ list for fifteen years. (It was recommended to me by a fellow student on my writing MA. Is it really that long ago? What have I done with my life?) Maya Angelou’s death last month, aged 86, kicked me into action.
I wasn’t a very attentive student, apparently. For a start I hadn’t realised IKWTCBS is an autobiography, the first of seven.* I didn’t know Angelou has written poetry, plays, essays, children’s books, and cookbooks; nor that as well as being a writer, she was an actor, director, public speaker and, early in her career, singer and dancer. And she was also active in the civil rights movement, knowing both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. (I repeat, what have I done with my life?)
The book begins with Margueritte (Maya’s real name) aged three arriving in Stamps, Arkansas with her four year old brother, Bailey, to be raised by her Grandmother (Momma) following her parents’ break-up. It ends with her aged seventeen, in bed, cradling her three-week old baby son. In the fourteen years in between she experiences the disrespect and racism of the “po white trash”, is raped, aged eight, by her mother’s boyfriend, is stabbed by her father’s jealous girlfriend, and lives rough for a month in a car wrecking yard.
But for all the undeniably traumatic events, the book is strangely uplifting. There is her discovery of and love for literature; her overcoming of institutional racism though sheer bloody-minded persistence to become the first black, female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
As her mother tells her, as she cradles her son in bed, afraid of hurting him: “See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing you do it without thinking.” It’s a good philosophy for life.
*** Highly recommended
*The other six autobiographies are: Gather Together in My Name; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; All God’s Children Need Travellin’ Shoes; A Song Flung Up To Heaven; and Mom & Me & Mom.