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This thrilling autobiographical novel follows Marguerite Johnson through the trails she faced living up in a black community in the 1930s. The persecution she faces from the black community as well as the white highlights the racism and sexism of life in this ere. Following the story of Maya and her brother Bailey Jr through her never ending quest to find where she belongs creates an emotional roller coaster for anyone. The violence and oppression she faces works as a lesson to anyone that the lives of the black children were just as horrifying as that of the adults. Maya writes about her life in a perspective you don't expect. I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of 16 due to some strong subject matter, it brings a new opinion into the views of racism of the 1930s and makes for an extremely emotional, good read written in a beautiful way.
Growing up in 1930s America isn?t easy when you?re a young Black girl. Marguerite Johnson lives with her grandparents and older brother Bailey in the town of Stamps, a heavily Black-White segregated place where everybody knows their place. A brief stay with her mother results in Marguerite being raped by her Mother?s boyfriend. Returning to Stamps, her way of coping is retreat into a world of muteness. The book follows the next few years of Marguerite?s life as she comes to terms with what happened to her and the person that she becomes. The book is an autobiographical account of Maya Angelou?s childhood so the impact it makes is stronger as you know that every word is true. It is a short book as it only covers Marguerite?s life between the ages of three and sixteen but what struck me was that within this relatively short space of time, this girl experiences more than most people do in a lifetime. And considerably more than anybody would want to experience. It is obvious from the start (and the back cover blurb) that Marguerite will suffer some kind of sexual abuse. What I wasn?t expecting was the abuse leading up to and the rape scene itself to be quite so graphic. It?s not something that anyone would find easy to read and that is perhaps why it is made clear on the back cover that to allow people to subconsciously prepare for it, because it is truly harrowing to read. The court room scenes are almost as bad and I imagine that this in itself was nearly as painful for Marguerite to bear: ?The lie lumped in my throat and I couldn?t get air. How I despised the man for making me lie. Old, mean, nasty thing. Old, black, nasty thing. The tears didn?t soothe my heart as they usually did.? The author?s voice is strong throughout and there is a careful combination writer?s prose and slight edges of Angelou?s natural accent that show through occasionally, most noticeably when she is relating what someone else has said: ?Momma said
, ?Now Brother Taylor, could be you was dreaming. You know, they say whatever you goes to bed with on your mind??? ?I had reached the no man?s ocean of darkness. No great decision was called for. I knew it would be torturous to go through the thick blackness of Uncle Willie?s bedroom, but it would be easier that staying around to hear the ghoulish story.? You gain quite a good picture of what most of the people within her life are like: Bailey is a strong, protective older brother who goes astray as they get older; her mother is an attractive, almost barely-there caricature of what a mother should be like; Momma and Uncle Willie are the solid, fiercely protective guardians of the pair and other characters come in and out and seem clearly defined. All that is, apart from Marguerite herself. I found that by the end of the book I still didn?t have a clear picture of what Marguerite was like and considering the book is sold on blurb that proclaims she becomes ?a champion of her own identity? this was quite a major criticism. There just seemed to be too many inconsistencies within Marguerite?s character for me to be able to understand what she was truly like. I realise that in real life, people aren?t consistent, but I kind of felt that there should have been some constancy between young Marguerite and teenage Marguerite. There was also the question of her muteness. We are told that she refuses to speak after her ordeal, but later on she is clearly speaking again and there is no definitive moment when this changes. Other things are equally less explained ? her relationship with Mrs. Flowers for one example. We are told this was a turning point in her life and then that is it. No more mention of the lady who was so important. Also, apart from a few sentences here and there, ? For a while I was punished for being so uppity that I wouldn?t speak; and then came the thrashings, given by any relative who felt himself offended? you would thin
k that Marguerite had merely retreated into her world of silence and was pretty much left to herself. This sentence indicates that she was beaten for it and quite regularly, but again this is barely mentioned afterwards. I think this is a good book to read in some respects; it gives you yet another perspective on a human being to consider ? not just the microcosm of Marguerite?s world but the macrocosm of the world around her and I did realise part way through that her encounter probably wasn?t all that unusual and neither was the way the community had with dealing with it. On the other hand, there are flaws and inconsistencies that make it slightly frustrating to read. The ending was incredibly unsatisfactory ? I have never heard of the author before and obviously I could find out what happened to her via the Internet and other means, but I wanted a stronger finish to the book. I was left with curiosity about what her life afterwards and I wasn?t quite sure how she felt she?d changed since her childhood other than that it had come to an end. I bought my copy from a charity shop for £1.25. At the moment, Ebay has a few copies for about £1 and it?s available from Amazon for £6.99. Maya Angelou has written 12 best-selling books including ?A song flung to heaven? and a number of children?s books, plays and screenplays. She is also an actress, producer and director. http://www.mayaangelou.com/ The title of the review comes from p. 77.
This book is unmissable due to Angelou’s beautiful, poetic language. However, I would not recommend it to anyone under 16 because of the harrowing rape scene. In brief: Maya Angelou's autobiography, from her arrival in Stamps aged just 3 to the birth of her child. All the usual challenges of growing up are teamed with abuse, abandonment and racial discrimination. However this is an uplifting tale of a strong and beautiful young woman. The central themes of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ include the healing power of religion; perceptions of beauty; abandonment, which leads to independence; the exploration of sexual experience; the crippling effects of racial discrimination; and the relationship with the community and family. RELIGION: Religion in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is a positive, creative force, but it does not promote change. Rather than challenging the cause of oppression, religion serves as a mechanism for coping with oppression. When Mrs. Henderson is threatened by the ridicule of the powhitetrash children, religion enables her to remain strong. While the white girls mock “Momma” by imitating her behaviour and baring their bodies to her, she merely sings a hymn. Mrs. Henderson gains a psychological victory over the whites because they fail to elicit a response from her. Mrs. Henderson is not threatened by the whites’ derogatory behaviour because she uses religion as a protective shield. Maya Angelou emphasises the regenerative power of religion in her depiction of the revival meeting. The people of Stamps dragged themselves to the revival meeting and are lifted out of their oppression by the uplifting sermon. Maya observes that Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, ‘who only a few hours earlier had crumbled in our front yard [...,] now sat on the edges of their rickety-rackety chairs. Their faces shone with the delight of their souls.’ The religiou
s meeting reassures the blacks that God will protect them and give the ‘mean whitefolks’ the ‘comeuppance’ they deserve. The purpose of the revival meeting is to alleviate the suffering of blacks in Stamps, to encourage them to ‘bear up under this life of toil and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye.’ However, religion cannot prevent the actual suffering of blacks on earth, therefore after the revival meeting, reality ‘began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning’, reminding blacks that ‘they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed’. BEAUTY: At the beginning of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, Maya’s perception of beauty is based on the white notion of beauty, which values blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. Maya criticises her own appearance and envisages waking up out of her ‘black ugly dream’ to find her ‘real hair, which was long and blond’ and her ‘light-blue eyes [that] were going to hypnotize’ everyone. In reality, Maya perceives herself to be ‘a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.’ Throughout her childhood, Maya internalises society’s pressures and develops the belief that white is beautiful. However, Maya does appreciate that black people can be beautiful. At an early age, Maya is ashamed of the difference in appearance between her and Bailey - she admits that her ‘family was handsome to a point of pain for [her]’. However, Maya witnesses a beauty far greater than the beauty of Bailey and the whites when she meets her mother, Vivian Baxter. Maya exclaims that her ‘mother’s beauty literally assailed [her]’ and that she ‘had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called “Mother”.’ Maya’s new awarene
ss of black beauty is accompanied by her realisation of white ugliness, embodied by Mrs. Viola Cullinan, Maya’s white employer, who was ‘singularly unattractive until she smiled.’ Through Maya’s realisation that beauty is not necessarily associated with skin colour she can grow to love her own appearance. Although Maya feels painfully inferior in appearance to her mother and brother, her family also helps to boost Maya’s self-esteem. Maya’s uncle Tommy reassures her ‘Ritie, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty... I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind.’ Maya’s intelligence more than compensates for her appearance. Once Maya realises that black people are beautiful, she feels less insecure about her black features. On her graduation day, Maya finally learns to appreciate her appearance, stating that she ‘was going to be lovely’. Maya feels confident about her appearance on graduation day because ‘everyone said [she] looked like a sunbeam’ in her new dress. In her association with a sunbeam, Maya is warm, strong and beautiful. ABANDONMENT & INDEPENDENCE: One of the reasons behind Maya’s low self-esteem is her sense of abandonment. Maya and Bailey, aged just three and four, arrived in Stamps wearing tags on their wrists ‘which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.’ The children are sent like a parcel to live with their grandmother. Maya and Bailey, protected by their youth, are convinced that their parents must be dead rather than abandon their children. When the children receive Christmas gifts from their parents their fantasy world is shattered. Meeting their father confronts their fears of abandonment, and the children wait to hear that Baile
y Sr. is leaving them again. When Bailey Sr. says that he will be going back to California, Maya was relieved because ‘the silent threat that had hung in the air since his arrival, the threat of his leaving someday would be gone.’ However, their father takes Maya and Bailey to meet their mother, Vivian Baxter. When their father leaves them with their mother in St. Louis, Maya admits that she was ‘neither glad nor sorry’ because Bailey Sr. ‘was a stranger, and if he chose to leave us with a stranger, it was all of one piece.’ This resignation is Maya’s typical response to her sense of abandonment. Just as Maya felt that her stay in Stamps was not permanent, she felt in her mind ‘[she] only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks...’ Due to a lack of security, Maya at first welcomes her encounter with Mr. Freeman because it was her first experience of warmth and intimacy. Maya admits that ‘[she] felt at home’ when Mr. Freeman first holds her. When Mr. Freeman keeps his distance for a while, Maya was ‘hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever.’ However, Maya soon experiences unimaginable pain that teaches her not to trust men, and she has to move again. Later in her life, Maya’s loneliness and isolation is celebrated as a sense of freedom. When she sleeps in a San Diego junkyard, Maya admits that the ‘idea of sleeping in the near open bolstered [her] sense of freedom.’ Maya relishes the opportunity to be independent, optimistically describing her car as ‘an island’ in a junkyard sea, where she can be ‘all alone and full of warm.’ The positive aspect of isolation is summarised when Maya states: ‘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.’ SEXUAL EXPERIENCE: Maya’s loneliness and isolation mea
nt that she eagerly welcomed Mr. Freeman’s attention. However, Mr. Freeman betrays Maya’s trust in him as a father figure by violating her body. At first, Maya is confused about what Mr. Freeman’s intentions are, but is pleased when he holds her. From this closeness, Maya deduces that Mr. Freeman would never ‘let [her] go or let anything bad ever happen to [her].’ However, this assumption is disappointed when Mr. Freeman accuses Maya of urinating in the bed. From this point, Maya associates sexual experiences with shame. Mr. Freeman shows an even more sinister side when he threatens Maya: ‘If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.’ Despite the threatening behaviour of Mr. Freeman, Maya began to feel lonely for ‘the encasement in his big arms.’ After years of loneliness, Maya’s world includes physical contact for the first time, even if that contact is accompanied with shame and fear. Although Maya feels lonely for a while, at the time of her rape Maya is repulsed by Mr Freeman’s advances. When Mr. Freeman began to pull down Maya’s ‘drawers’, she hoped that at ‘any minute [her] mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save [her].’ Out of fear, Maya withdraws into her fantasy world, where a comic book character can save her from Mr. Freeman’s advances. Like before, Mr. Freeman threatens Maya that if she screams he will kill her and Bailey. After the painful act of rape, Maya expresses the loss of innocence and childhood that has been forced by Mr. Freeman. In hospital, Maya realises that ‘[she] was eight and grown.’ The act of rape turns an innocent girl into a woman. After the rape, Maya’s behaviour is altered since she is no longer a child. At the summer fish fry picnic, Maya cannot squat behind a tree like the young children, because she feels ‘ages old and very wise at
ten’. However, her friendship with Louise Kendricks allows Maya to enjoy childish pursuits. Maya was grateful that ‘after being a woman for three years [she] was about to become a girl.’ Another effect of the rape is that Maya does not trust boys or men any more. When Maya receives a love note from Tommy Valdon, she questions ‘what evil dirty things did he have in mind?’ Maya associates love with rape and sex after her experience with Mr. Freeman. RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: Growing up is a difficult process, but it is worse if you are a ‘Southern Black girl’ who has to cope with racism as well as all the other trials of life. Instead of thinking of whites as people, Maya associates them with the hostility of racism and segregation. Maya portrays ‘the dual peril of being Black and crippled’ when Uncle Willie has to hide in a potato bin to avoid the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan. Through this terrifying ordeal, Maya learns that ‘lameness offers no protection from the wrath of bigots.’ When Maya goes to work for Mrs. Cullinan, she learns the importance of her name in affirming her identity. When Mrs. Cullinan decides to rename her ‘Margaret’, Maya pities her for not being able to pronounce properly. Then Mrs. Cullinan adopts her friend’s suggestion, calling Maya ‘Mary’. Although ‘every person [Maya] knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name”’, Maya decides to take revenge by breaking Mrs. Cullinan’s Virginian dishes. Maya sustains her sense of identity by violently reacting against the racism of whites. A conversation between Uncle Willie and Bailey emphasises the futility of racism. When Bailey asks ‘what colored people had done to white people in the first place’, the answer, of course, is nothing. Uncle Willie points out that the whites don’t even know the blacks, but that they
are ‘mostly scared’. Racism is so complex that Maya defines it as the ‘humorless puzzle of inequality and hate.’ COMMUNITY & FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS: The ideal community depicted by Maya is the communal San Diego junkyard, where Maya saw ‘a collage of Negro, Mexican and white faces’. Here people of all races work together in order to survive. Maya admits that the lack of criticism she received from their ‘ad hoc community’ influenced her, and ‘set a tone of tolerance for [her] life.’ In this community, Maya is allowed to be herself, leaving her at ease with her sense of identity. Maya’s inspiration for life can be traced back to the community of Stamps. The community surrounds and protects Maya like a ‘cocoon’ after her rape. It is characterised by a unity present during the communal summer picnic fish fry. While the men fished, a ‘rotating crew of young girls’ cleaned the fish and others cooked them. This is starkly contrasted with St. Louis and San Francisco, where ‘the sensations of common relationship were missing.’ As well as the support of her community, individuals in her life inspire Maya. Mrs. Annie Henderson or Momma provides Maya’s greatest support. To Maya, Momma is a symbol of ‘power and strength’, whose mere presence was support enough for Maya throughout her childhood. While Momma is ‘often unrelenting in her punishment’, such as the time when Maya said ‘By the way’, she does ‘usher Maya safely through her childhood and early adolescence.’ Mrs. Henderson is not openly affectionate but she is a pillar of strength for Maya. When Maya has a toothache, Momma takes her to the white dentist and refuses to take “No” for an answer, not for her ‘grandbaby’. Throughout ‘Caged Bird’, Maya begins to display characteristics of h
er grandmother and her mother. Although her beauty and ‘jollity’ define Vivian Baxter, she has a ruthless streak, summarised by her saying that ‘“Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary”’. However, Maya argues for her mother’s fairness, giving the example of Vivian’s fight with her partner: ‘He had been shot, true, but in her fairness she had warned him.’ Later when Maya slaps Dolores, she emphasises her similarity to her mother in that she warned Dolores, by saying ‘“I’m going to slap you for that, you silly old bitch.”’ Vivian Baxter also encourages Maya’s growing independence because she was ‘a firm believer in self-sufficiency’ and arguably her support leads Maya to obtain the job as the first black streetcar conductor. After her rape by Mr. Freeman, Maya is trapped in a cage of silence, but she is thrown a lifeline by Mrs. Flowers, ‘the measure of what a human being can be.’ Mrs. Flowers teaches Maya the importance of language. Maya realises from their meetings that the human voice infuses words with ‘shades of deeper meaning.’ Mrs. Flowers gives Maya a valuable love of language that she carries with her: ‘I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.’ In San Francisco, Maya ‘changes into another imagined self: a compound of her mother, Mrs. Flowers, and Miss Kirwin of Washington High School.’ Maya respects Miss Kirwin because she does not discriminate her pupils based on colour. Maya feels a sense of belonging because she is not excluded for being Black in a predominantly white school. Although Bailey is arguably the most important person in Maya’s world when she is a child, adolescence drives a rift between them. During childhood, Bailey satisfies all of Maya’s needs by
being her ‘unshakeable god’, her ‘pretty Black brother was [her] Kingdom Come.’ Although they are inseparable at an early age, later Maya feels that Bailey is not glad to see her because ‘he didn’t act much like it.’ If Bailey feels an emotion, like Momma, he is reluctant to express it. However, Maya still feels a deep love for Bailey and confides in him when she finds herself pregnant at the age of sixteen. Discussing Maya Angelou’s rainbows of inspiration, one could not possibly forget Uncle Willie. He taught Maya her times tables at the threat of being thrown into the stove. Maya says that his threat encouraged her to memorise her times tables ‘so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if [she’s] awakened after an evening of copious libation [she] can be awakened at 3 o’clock in the morning and asked “Do your twelvsies.”’ At Willie’s funeral Maya met the mayor of Little Rock, first Black mayor in the South. He owed his success to Uncle Willie for giving him a job in the store and teaching him his times tables in the same way that he taught Maya. Maya was totally unaware of ‘the range of [Willie’s] influence’ but she does know that Willie is the ‘rainbow in the clouds’ in a time when it seemed like there was no hope left. BIBLIOGRAPHY Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” Maya Angelou in Lori Rohlk, "Maya Angelou's Rainbows" Bryan D. Bourn, "Maya Angelou and the African-American Tradition", http://www.usinternet.com/users/bdbourn/maya.htm. [28 February 1999]. Dolly McPherson, “Order Out of Chaos”. Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Sympathy" in David Frost, "An Interview With Maya Angelou", http://www.newsun.com/angelou.html [28 February 1999]. Dr. Maya Angelou at "The Distinguished Annie Clark Tann
er Lecture, 16th-annual Families Alive Conference, Weber State University, May 8, 1997", http://www.weber.edu/chfam/html/angelouspeech.html [19 March 1999] Adapted from my BA dissertation. Virago RRP £7.99 Alphabetstreet £7.99 The Book Pl@ce £7.19 Amazon.co.uk £6.39 BOL £6.39
In this first of five volumes of autobiography, poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly-knit black community there. These very lessons carried her throughout the hardships she endured later in life, including a tragic occurrence while visiting her mother in St. Louis and her formative years spent in California - where an unwanted pregnancy changed her life forever.