‘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.’
My skin prickled. Immediately I knew that Maya Angelou’s voice had felled and hooked me, that I had found something real, compulsory, visceral. I had found a book—part autobiography, part coming-of-age fiction—that, according to Caged Bird Legacy ‘changed the nation and eventually the world by giving a young black girl a voice, once lost then freed to sing the song of all people.’
Maya was blessed with an incredible talent for poetry, and a lifelong love of literature helped stoke her fires of determination and resilience. The first volume of her classic memoir is dedicated to her son, ‘and all the strong black birds of promise, who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs.’
First published in the US in 1969—after a mentor/friend used reverse psychology to challenge Maya to write the ‘impossible’; autobiography-as-literature—the book evokes the American South in the 1930s so perfectly that many scenes still feel imprinted on the insides of my eyelids. I’ve never read an author so able to conjure a scene like a photograph:
‘The gay picnic dresses dashed, stopped and darted like beautiful dragonflies over a dark pool. The boys, black whips in the sunlight, popped behind the trees where their girls had fled, half hidden and throbbing in the shadows.’
Maya’s words transported me; I felt I had been there, that it was my memory. As a reader I felt grateful to the author for allowing herself to return in her memory and her writing to what she called ‘the lost years’. The memoir opens with three year old Maya and her four year old brother Bailey arriving in Stamps, Arkansas, with nothing but tags on their wrists informing people of their destination—the home of their indomitable Grandmother, ‘Momma’. The book follows Maya’s progress from age three to sixteen, charting an awe-inspiring transformation through an intimate glimpse into the author’s early life. Danger simmers beneath the text, constantly and painfully replenished via the dogged threat of racist oppression, documented through degrading scenes such as when Maya is refused medical care and her uncle is forced to hide in a bin full of vegetable peelings.
The book is beautifully written; full of poetic prose and poignant observation, but for me it also contained important life lessons. It woke me up again to white privilege. It taught me more about the threat imposed by ‘Whitefolks’ on the 1930s/40s Black Southern community and it provided a rare chance to see the world, in the not-so-distant past, through the eyes of a child facing and witnessing racism, rape and exploitation. For me it was also a thought-provoking novelty to read about a mostly invisible (due to segregation) white people described only by the colour of their skin—indicative of how racism dehumanises everyone, even those who wield it. It showed me how racism and segregation brew ignorance, distrust and hatred in every community—while this may sound obvious, a reminder of how and why such hatred is bred can only be a good thing.
The book took me longer than usual to read, because I kept getting hung up on the beautiful lines, having to re-read each stand out sentence over and over. But this question, asked by Bailey, snagged in my mind perhaps more than any other line:
‘Why do they hate us so much?’
This is extraordinarily vivid, humorous, heart-wrenching, beautiful writing and an important historical document with so much to teach the world. It made me laugh, made me cry and it certainly made me think.