I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Virago, 2007, 313 p.

This is the first volume of Angelou’s autobiography and was originally published in 1969. Its span covers a touch more than the decade of the 1930s.

She was born Marguerite Johnson; the contraction Maya came about from the pet name her brother Bailey used for her. At the age of three when her mother and father became estranged, her upbringing, and Bailey’s, was given over to her grandmother, whom she calls Momma, living in a town called Stamps in Arkansas. Momma was a formidable woman, steeped in the Bible but with an unusual position. She owned a shop (or store, as it is here) and was better off than many of the white people there (the memorably dubbed powhitetrash, who nevertheless looked down on her.) In fact during the depression Momma had been able to lend money even to some of the professional whites to help tide them over.

Life as a young black girl in that time and place was as circumscribed as you might expect. This is made especially evident at Angelou’s graduation from her (black) school when the (white) speaker praised only athletic accomplishments. The audience stilled as it realised that while in contrast to the money the white kids’ school was to receive that for hers meant whites “were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.” She thinks, “What school official had the right to decide that those two men must be our only heroes?” Nevertheless Joe Louis’s status as a standard bearer for blacks is well illustrated by their reaction to the radio commentary on his fight with Primo Carnera.

The early part of the book has the feel of a novel. Angelou’s recall is impressive and she had the same wish for a different appearance as the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (in effect to be more white;) in Angelou’s case specifically to be rid of her curly hair. Her memoir also shares with that book instances of sexual abuse. (At the age of eight, while staying for a few months with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s live-in boy-friend.) The emphasis on religious belief, though strong in Momma’s case – Angelou transgresses her code in ways she didn’t understand at the time, sudden tripwires previously unexplained by adults are something of a feature – are not as to the fore as in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain but its importance to black life is plain. It is books that become solace, both for Maya and Bailey, books that tell of a different life and point the way toward it, books that perhaps made the difference in the way her life turned out in comparison to others who found no such support.

In her late childhood Angelou and her brother moved to San Francisco to live with her father where she noticed that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese businesses disappeared from San Francisco to be replaced by Negro ones (Negro is the word Angelou uses) with an influx of Southern Blacks. Her father – also called Bailey – takes her with him on a trip to Mexico where she undergoes a rite of passage of sorts when he gets drunk and she attempts to drive his car back from what she feels is the middle of nowhere, making it fifty miles to her destination with only one mishap.

Her conclusion, speaks for itself. “The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”

Pedant’s corner:- Du Bois’ (the ‘s’ in Bois is unpronounced, the sound’s inclusion in the possessive has to be signalled, then; Du Bois’s,) Stamps’ (Stamps’s,) Flowers’ (Flowers’s – used two lines above,) Williams’ (Williams’s.) “Bailey and I lay the coins on top of the cash register” (laid the coins.) “fewer Amen’s were heard” (Amens,) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) Dolores’ (x 2, Dolores’s,) “to staunch the flood of fear” (stanch,) “focalized on” (focused on.)

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