Maya Angelou, African-American writer and activist, passed away a little over two years ago. As they were commemorating her passing on the news, I wondered to myself why I had never read one of her books. After all, reading a Maya Angelou book has always been on my to-do list!
So, I found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at my local library. This book is actually an autobiography, but Maya Angelou recounts her childhood as if it were fiction. Her story reads more like a chronological narrative than a traditional autobiography.
This, in and of itself, is certainly an accomplishment and an expansion of the autobiographical genre.
However, I was touched by her experiences of discrimination and prejudice, and above all her matter-of-fact and very practical attitude in the face of such experiences. She doesn’t seek sympathy from the reader but instead gains the reader’s respect. Her childhood stories are often heartbreaking, yet they also tell a tale of a young woman coming into her own despite social, racial, and gender prejudices, which have collided with her own personal and familial tragedies.
Yet this story is far from being just a tragedy. There is a slight tinge of hope throughout her childhood recounting. In spite of memories of pain and suffering, her love for her brother, her friends, and for literature shine though as her guiding saviors. Her acceptance of her destiny (and subsequent desire to change it) and her sense of personal responsibility, perhaps instilled by her grandmother, are also notable.
Maya also gains you over slowly. Her attack is subtle, as what seems to be a simple recounting in her few first chapters turns into a profound experience by the end of the novel.
As I Caucasian female, perhaps I have often erred in believing that racism or prejudice no longer exist. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own tolerance and upbringing in racially diverse southern California. I remember growing up with friends from a wide range of racial backgrounds and believing it to be absolutely normal. I truly thought no differently of my white, black, and Mexican classmates.
In this sense, it was very touching to me to see that a woman like Maya Angelou had experienced such prejudices or difficulties in the not-so-distant past. I’m not talking about the 19th century, civil war era. Just in the past 50 to 60 years, or even more recent decades.
What I do know is that suffering tends to beget more suffering. Maya bore the brunt of a history and family that was not her own, yet transformed her story into that of her own making.