The first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography begins with Marguerite arriving in Stamps, Arkansas, at three years old, with her brother, Bailey, one year older, in the care of Miss. Annie Henderson, their grandmother (“Momma”).
It moves from the store to the churchyard, from hymn-singing to beatings. It crosses time and space fluidly. The language is spare and powerfully so.
Even on rereading (this was my third reading, the second in 2011), it remains visceral, the scene with her mother’s boyfriend, with all the shame and warmth and fear and comfort, all of it happening all at once and, then, forever.
The parts that I had forgotten (like the time that she and Bailey spend with their mother and, separately, with their father, overshadowed by the intensity of their experiences in Stamps) quickly returned, the intensity of her bond with Bailey re-rooting these easily, so poignant, all over again.
I found myself reciting the most memorable bits to Mr. BIP on a walk: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
This time, however, I registered the importance of her experiences in San Francisco differently. “The air of collective displacement, the impermanence of life in wartime and the gauche personalities of the more recent arrivals tended to dissipate my own sense of not belonging.”
She is moving beyond Stamps and I realise that I must journey with her. “To me, a thirteen-year-old Black Girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom.”
But, even in the second volume, Gather Together in My Name (1974), Stamps looms large.
“In my memory, Stamps is a place of light, shadow, sounds and entrancing odors. The earth smell was pungent, spiced with the odor of cattle manure, the yellowish acid of the ponds and rivers, the deep pots of greens and beans cooking for hours with smoked or cured pork. Flowers added their heavy aroma. And above all, the atmosphere was pressed down with the smell of old fears, and hates, and guilt.”
The sensory element remains strong, but there are everyday details which take hold more vehemently.
The experience of violation in the first volume is unforgettable. Here, she is confronted with a different kind of violence. “There is no sound in the world like that of a man storing his fist in the chest of another man. Lions may roar, and coyotes howl, but the vibrations of two human beings struggling for physical superiority introduced to me a nauseating and new terror.”
There is an overt hint of the next volume in a sentence near the end of this volume: “Then I’ll be back switching and bitching and getting merry like Christmas.”
Readers also understand the growing importance of her relationship with music, which comes to the fore in the next two volumes. “The music was my friend, my lover, my family. It was a pretty day on a San Francisco hill with just enough high to remark on details. It was my son laughing when I entered his room.”
Her love of literature is also more specific in this volume, when she determines which books she will keep and which will be relinquished for a move.
“I was certain that lean and lonely tubercular patients would have their spirits lifted reading the Topper stories of Thorne Smith, and I had proved it possible to read Robert Benchley’s essays and short stories over a hundred times and still laugh. Ann Petry’s The Street, all Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright and Hemingway would be given to an old-folks home. But the Russian writers would be packed away in mothballs and stored in our basement. I would savor the idea of Dostoevsky’s, Tolstoy’s and Gorki’s volumes molding in the dank cellar, wisps of camphor and odors of wet earth floating above them.”
The relationship with her son, Tony (who renames himself Guy, at the end of the third volume), intensifies just as her connection with Bailey loosens. “The air between Bailey and me had coarsened with our growing up and thickened with his cynicism. He could no longer see me clearly and I could not distinguish his black male disappointment in life.”
She shares intimate observations and patterns rather than details. “Though I prided myself on tender sensitivity, I have never known when a great love affair was beginning. Some barricade lies midway in my mind, and I’m usually on my back scrutinizing a ceiling before it is borne in on me that this is the man I fantasized in my late night fingering.”
In Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), she begins by working in a record shop but ends up, as promised, singin’ and swingin’.
“I was a glamorous night-club singer, or at last wanted to be considered glamorous, but I still lived at home with my mother. Late evenings I would find her sitting at the dining room table drinking beer and playing solitaire, and definitely not waiting up for me.”
Her humour (quiet, as in the passage above) and her willingness to consider her own fallibility are remarkable.
“Whenever I had danced non-angelically on the point of a pin, I always knew I might slip and break my neck. It could be fatal, but at least all anxiety would cease. Because of that, I often rushed toward holocausts with an abandon that caused observers to think of me as courageous. The truth was, I simply wanted an end to uncertainty.”
She continues to alter her identity, moving through Marguerite, Maya, Ritie, Sugar, and Rita as required.
This is summarized neatly in The Heart of a Woman (1981) in her son’s experience.
“In his nine years of schooling, we had lived in five areas of San Francisco, three townships in Los Angeles, New York City, Hawaii and Cleveland, Ohio. I followed the jobs, and against the advice of a pompous school psychologist, I had taken Guy along. The psychologist had been white, obviously educated and with those assets I knew he was well-to-do. How could he know what a young Negro boy needed in a racist world?”
Her experience of racism is stated unflinchingly and I found her love of Montreal particularly interesting, her belief that she was able to see and be seen differently there, than she was in the United States or Europe (which was also interesting, in the context of her touring as a singer in “Porgy and Bess”).
In the fourth volume, her experience listening to Martin Luther King was remarkable, touching. “Strangers embraced tightly; some men and women wept openly, choking on sobs; others laughed at the waves of spirit and the delicious tide of emotion.”
Her ability to succinctly capture the spirit of a place remains intact. “In 1959, Fresno was a middling town with palm trees and a decidedly Southern accent. Most of its white inhabitants seemed to be descendants of Steinbeck’s Joads, and its black citizens were farm hands who had simply exchanged the dirt roads of Arkansas and Mississippi for the dusty streets of central California.”
And the difficulties raising a son in these times is unforgettable. These are Mom Willie’s words: “While they’re young, you pray you can feed them and keep them in school. They get up some size and you pray some crazy white woman don’t scream rape around them and get them lynched. They come of age and white men call them up to go fight, and you pray they don’t get killed over there fighting some white folks’ war. Now. Raising a black boy makes you sit down and think.”
But the later volumes seem to be written more deliberately. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings feels more free, dipping into and out of memory, dancing around a series of scenes which, together, offer readers insight to the experiences of that young girl in Stamps.
By All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) Maya and Guy have gone to Ghana. “We passed through customs, delighted to have our bags examined by black people. Our taxi driver was black. The dark night seemed friendly to me, and when the cab’s lights illuminated a pedestrian, I saw a black face. By the time we reached the address Vus had given me, a knot in my stomach, which had bunched all my remembered life, had unfurled. I realized I hadn’t seen a white face for over an hour. The feeling was light and extremely strange.” [From The Heart of a Woman]
She experiences a variety of intense emotions on the continent. Beyond the initial disruption to her worldview, with delight and strangeness, there is adoration and uncertainty.
So: “I was soon swept into an adoration for Ghana as a young girl falls in love, heedless and with slight chance of finding the emotion required.”
But, also: “Were those laughing people who moved in the streets with such equanimity today descendants of slave-trading families? Did that one’s ancestor sell mine or did that grandmother’s grandmother grow fat on the sale of my grandmother’s grandmother?”
Ultimately, however, acceptance and determination: “Despite the murders, rapes and suicides, we had survived. The middle passage and the auction block had not erased us. Not humiliations nor lynchings, individual cruelties nor collective oppression had been able to eradicate us from the earth. We had come through despite our own ignorance and gullibility, and the ignorance and rapacious greed of our assailants.”
In this sense, the same spirit of her first volume of memoirs does persist, athough the telling becomes more chronological and practical.
A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002) ends with her beginning to write her memoirs; the last line of this volume is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings‘ first line. It is a shorter volume, which contains a good deal of sadness: a separation from her son (who remained in Ghana), a break in a longtime romance, and the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
She was left feeling there was “no center in the universe, and the known edges of the world had become dim and inscrutable”, as though she was “in a labyrinth, going somewhere without knowing my destination or even when I might arrive”.
But when she finally settles in New York City, she finds a sense of community which buoys her in every way.
“When I looked around, there were over fifty people in my suddenly small apartment, and they were having a New York good time. James Baldwin and Julian Mayfield and Paule Marshall were discussing the political responsibilities of writers. John Killens, the founder of the Harlem Writers Workshop, waded in with Alexander Pushkin. Ivan Dixon, the screen actor, on a visit from California, and M. J. Hewitt were sitting on the floor near the piano in deep conversation while Patty Bone, who had been Billie Holiday’s accompanist, played a Thelonious Monk tune.”
The final volume in her autobiographical series, Mom & Me & Mom (2013), feels like she was scanning that entire New York apartment and roaming through the memories attached to pivotal remembrances.
She retells incidents which were originally depicted in a different tone and manner in earlier volumes, sometimes with an emphasis on her relationship with her mother related to that incident (either omitted in the earlier version or shortened).
This volume is the shortest and least substantial of the lot but it does contain a sense of reflection upon her life as a whole rather than on a chronological reporting of her experiences.
“Independence is a heady draft, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.”
This Maya Angelou quote is on my fridge: “Courage is the most important virtue because, without it, you cannot practice any of the others.” After her death in 2014, I watched videos of her online, performing “I Rise”, and thought about how often I had muttered that quote about courage to myself in various situations in my life, and felt simply grateful.
So, even though I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains my favourite of her memoirs, I am glad to have read the rest, to have peeked inside her experience and learned from the distance she walked in her travelling shoes.