In honor of the late Maya Angelou—the honorable author, poet, and activist—who died on May 28, 2014, I decided to read her beautiful autobiography: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Really, before actually reading it, I have never realized that this book is really an autobiography of Maya Angelou, not just an autobiographical fiction. I just realized my fault when Marguerite told how her brother, who loved her so much, used to call her Maya (from Mya sister). It was then that I realized that is has been Maya Angelou herself who was telling her story.
Maya was only three years old when her parents divorced. They sent her and her big brother Bailey (four years old) to Stamps, Arkansas, by train, with only a porter to accompany them, to live with their grandmother. This journey (and the sense of abandonment) wounded both children. In Stamps, the grandmother, Annie Henderson, lived with her crippled son Willie (Uncle Willie). It was the two of them who raised Maya and Bailey. Momma Henderson (Maya’s appellation for her grandmother) ran the Store where the Blacks (mostly very poor cotton pickers) shopped their daily needs. Mrs. Henderson was a strong and respectable woman, and the way she maintained her dignity against the Whites’ insults was tremendous. During her life in Stamps, Maya witnessed the struggles as well as the bitter hopes of the Blacks amidst the Whites dominion. All these built the inferiority (if not hatred) in little Maya towards the Whites, although she almost never saw them in reality. She even felt guilty of having Shakespeare as her favorite author because of his whiteness.
When Maya was still nine or ten years old, her father came to Stamps and brought the brother and sister to St. Louis, to stay with their beautiful mother. One day Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and this changed her life completely. She became very quiet, and suddenly Maya grew much more mature than her age. I think Maya’s turning point optimism of being black was in her eight grade graduation, when Henry Reeds led the audience to sing Negro National Anthem with pride. It was then that Maya started to realize of her own value, as a Black, and as a human being. Her visit to her daddy’s home was another phase of Maya’s transformation, where she eventually found her own strength.
I liked this book from the first page; in fact, it did not feel like reading an autobiography at all. Maya Angelou was certainly a great story teller, and her way of re-telling her own bitter past was filled with hope and optimism, instead of condemnation or lamentation. As a title, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” offers a deeper meaning of Angelou’s sight of her people. I found an interesting article about this, which revealed that the title was taken from a poem by an African poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar—and it is a beautiful poem! When the world has not been free from prejudices and discrimination—even until now—what the oppressed must do is to maintain hope, and to keep in mind that as long as they think they are free, no one can snatch that from them.
A beautiful and inspiring reading indeed! Four stars for Maya Angelou!
I read Ballantine Books Mass Market edition
This book is counted as:
6th book for 2014 TBR Pile Challenge
74th book for The Classics Club Project
72nd book for 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die