This is the type of book that I’m not sure I can fairly review. Partly because it tells a story that isn’t mine to judge or critique but also partly because I just really loved it. I didn’t enjoy every moment – there are some hard moments, some truly awful history recounted, and there were others that simply didn’t grab my interest – but I felt immersed in the life of Marguerite Johnson and I wanted to know what happened to her next and how she felt about it.
Maya Angelou writes of her life from very early childhood, when she and her older brother Bailey are sent to live with their grandmother in the town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their grandmother runs a store, a central location for the Black community. Bailey and Marguerite (or My or Maya as Bailey calls her) are close siblings though very different. Young Marguerite is introverted, quiet to the point of silence, and smart, a lover of books. Their grandmother is a firm but stable force while their parents come in and out of their lives. A period of time spent living with their mother when Marguerite is 8-years-old ends when she is horribly assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend and the children return to Stamps.
Background to their lives is both the Depression and then the Second World War and, of course, the deep and vicious divide between white and Black. In Stamps, Marguerite is surrounded by Black community where her grandmother is well-admired and successful. But at the periphery, and sometimes spilling over, is the threat of the whites who live nearby.
The book is filled with aggressions, large and small. From the poor white children who are rude and filthy but consider themselves better than Marguerite’s grandmother simply because they are white to the white woman who employs Marguerite but changes her name because it is too long to say.
One scene that jumped out at me vividly takes place when evening falls and Bailey has not arrived home. Marguerite, her grandmother, and her uncle who lives with them don’t speak their fears aloud but their fear grows as the night becomes darker. Eventually Marguerite and her grandmother walk out to find Bailey.
The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose. Any break from routine may herald for them unbearable news.– Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
This scene took place nearly one hundred years ago and yet it so closely echoes the cries of Black mothers today. One hundred years later and this fear has not lessened; the weapon of choice has not even changed that much.
While I could never claim to know how a contemporary Black reader might feel about Angelou’s writing, I noticed again and again that the issues and struggles that she describes are still entirely prevalent now. They are the same issues that people of colour are currently protesting on the streets around the world. Some of the details may have changed but others are still echoed on our news and social media feeds.
I feel that it isn’t my place to say that Angelou offers hope through her words because I’m not the one who needs or should expect hope here. And I don’t want to say that she shows strength in adversity because I think sometimes we use that praise of “being strong” to brush off the violence that has brought it about. Marguerite continues. We watch her become more aware, both of herself and of the world around her. She fights to become the first Black woman to be a conductor on the San Francisco trolleys. She both strides and stumbles through adolescence and into adulthood. The book ends with the birth of her first son and there is a sense that we are only just seeing the next stage of her life emerging.
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 by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?
If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers).– Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings