Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Classics Club 38: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. It covers her life from age 3 to 17. During this time her life circumstances were less than ideal. Her parent's marriage breaks up and Marguerite (as she was known then) and her brother are sent to live with their grandmother (Momma), a move which leaves them feeling abandoned. After a few years their father returns and takes the children to live their mother, whose family has links to the underworld. At aged 8, Maya is raped by her mother's boyfriend. Soon after both children are returned to their grandmother, in a bid to aid Maya's recovery. However, Momma lives in Arkansas so racial discrimination and prejudice is an unavoidable reality. When racial hostilities reach dangerous levels Momma returns the children to their mother in order to keep them safe. During this time Maya takes a lengthy visit to her father, falls out with his girlfriend and is homeless for a period before returning to her mother. Through her own persistence she overcomes discrimination becoming the first black woman street car conductor. Confused about her own sexuality Maya propositions a boy, resulting in her becoming pregnant. This volume ends with 17 year old Maya adjusting to her new role as a mother.

So much of this early background screams disadvantage and could well have seen many a person trapped in an existence of disadvantage and abuse. Maya Angelou overcame though, and in this background of her autobiography we can see some of the reasons why. She was fortunate to have a largely strong and supportive family. Momma was neither warm nor cuddly but she provided love and stability when the children needed it. She also sets a positive example in terms of hard work, treating people well and rising above discrimination. At two crucial moments Maya's mother stood by her, first by not doubting her over the rape and not sticking with her then boyfriend, and second by supporting her once she discovered Maya was pregnant. The close-knit black community in Stamps, the family's faith, and the value Maya found in education also contributed to her inner fortitude.

The other factor that really stood out to me was the importance of having other people believe in her at key junctures in Maya's life. I'm thinking here especially of Mrs Flowers as well as Miss Kirwin. Even if we don't have children of own, we should not underestimate the positive impact we can have on a child's life - a gift, a smile, a positive word of encouragement, time. Any one of these can stick with a child, potentially sustaining them and spurring them in a positive direction.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings could well have been a depressing read. But it wasn't. Even though it ends with Maya as a young unmarried mother, the reader is left with the sense that she will overcome whatever obstacles life throws at her in the future.

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