It is common knowledge that Maya Angelou is a great writer. After years of owning a set of her memoirs, I finally decided to read her. The book, I know why a caged bird sings, first in a 7-book series of memoirs is the story of her life from her earliest childhood memory to the time she had her son.
I’d like to share some of my favourite gobbets that spoke to me, both in and out of the context of the book. The different extracts are from certain themes and plots that run through the memoir. This is as much a review as I will give of this book.
She had been abused sexually by her mother’s boyfriend. She wished to die. She felt powerless to the point that even her wish to die seemed to depend on the man who abused her.
“I knew that I was dying and, in fact, I longed for death, but I didn’t want to die anywhere near Mr. Freeman. I knew that even now he wouldn’t have allowed death to have me unless he wished it to.”
When she came into her self worth and realised that she, in her own right, was likeable as human being. It was after Sister Flowers took an interest in her.
“I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.”
At her first job as a little girl in Stamps, Arkansas, her madam gave her a new name, ignoring her birth name because it was ‘too long.’ Mary was the new name, instead of Marguerite.
“The very next day, she called me by the wrong name. Miss Glory and I were washing up the lunch dishes when Mrs. Cullinan came to the doorway. “Mary?”
Miss Glory asked, “Who?”
Mrs. Cullinan, sagging a little, knew and I knew. “I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days.”
Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret, ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”
“That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the china tureen and, Mary, I want you to carry it carefully.”
Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks.”
“..imagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenience…”
On how religion crept into the black narrative
“People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all.”
The extent to which one triumph by a black person was a representation of the whole race, as much as one failure was too. This was a boxing match, Champion of the World, between a black man and a white man. The black man was winning, and then he was losing. The metaphoric implications of a loss were deep, too deep.
“My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful…
…This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes. True that we were stupid and ugly and lazy and dirty and, unlucky and worst of all, that God Himself hated us and ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, world without end.”
“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my colour with no chance of defense. We should all be dead.”
“It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness.”
“Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?”
“How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.”
On growing up and confronting the harsh reality then presented to black women.
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.”
“Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.”
“The bright hours when the young rebelled against the descending sun had to give way to twenty-four-hour periods called “days” that were named as well as numbered.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.”
“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.”
When she discovered sex, she went after it herself. There was a big reveal, and not the exciting kind. It was a power balance that in my opinion has always marred sex between genders: the thought that during sex, the man takes something from the woman, never that the woman is the taker.
“Hello, Marguerite.” He nearly passed me.
I put the plan into action. “Hey.” I plunged, “Would you like to have a sexual intercourse with me?” Things were going according to the chart. His mouth hung open like a garden gate. I had the advantage and so I pressed it.
“Take me somewhere.”
His response lacked dignity, but in fairness to him I admit that I had left him little chance to be suave.
He asked, “You mean, you’re going to give me some trim?”
I assured him that that was exactly what I was about to give him. Even as the scene was being enacted I realized the imbalance in his values. He thought I was giving him something, and the fact of the matter was that it was my intention to take something from him. His good looks and popularity had made him so inordinately conceited that they blinded him to that possibility.”
And then, she had a child.