When my dear friend Ali read and reviewed Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, I remembered how I’d enjoyed reading this book several decades ago. My innocent question in her review’s comments about whether she was planning to read the rest of the series seems to have spawned a mini-reading challenge for the two of us – with no pressure and following our own schedule – to read them all through from start to finish. And look, there’s a lovely box set (though only available from the book supplier we don’t usually like to use, and not actually in a box). Anyway, fully aware that I’ll probably be reading two of them this month, I decided to catch up as quickly as I could, and I got this read last week.

Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

(April 2021)

You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking. (p. 309)

The fascinating and absorbing story of Angelou’s first 17 years, we follow her from a schoolgirl living securely at her grandmother’s house and store to a new mother in California who’d hidden her pregnancy for over 8 months and hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that being pregnant meant she was going to end up with a baby.

Maya and her brother Bailey are moved from pillar to post during their youth, thanks to the vagaries of their parents’ wishes. They’re shipped off alone on the train aged 3 and 4, labels attached, to their grandmother when their parents split up, then end up with their separate parents, who have an air of ineffable glamour, at different times. When things get tough, they tend to get sent back to the small town where they grew up helping at the store and bearing witness to other impoverished Black people’s lives. The travails of the cotton pickers, who gather at the store early and come back exhausted late are particularly detailed.

In cotton-picking time the late afternoon revealed the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature’s blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight. (p. 11)

I loved the everyday details of life as Maya and Bailey grow up, but obviously there are awful traumas, too, from their uncle having to hide when the Klan are in town to Maya’s rape by her mother’s boyfriend, but also the pain of rejection by their parents and the realisation of the lot a racist society is granting them. It’s so well and clearly written with the appropriate amount of detail, so nothing is too traumatic to read as such but it gives a clear and unadorned picture of what is happening. But the writing is also limpid and even beautiful at times. She’s also so good on the life of children, uncomprehending of what adults want of them and living separate lives, and that’s what I’d remembered from last time I read the book, too.

Maya and Bailey’s relationship is beautifully drawn, moving closer and further apart as the years and experiences wear on. I loved reading about his gift of a book on her school graduation day, thrown into horrible contrast by the hijacking of the ceremony by two White officials who tell them only that they can become famous athletes (and that’s just the boys) and nothing else in heart-breaking scenes she skewers from her position as an adult writing the book and looking back. But she prevails, for example becoming the first Black female worker on the San Francisco streetcars, underage at that. As she grows older she’s able to take her own initiative and make her own decisions, OK, not always from a position of sufficient knowledge, as when she decides to sleep with a boy for the first time. The touching scene at the end with her newborn son makes me want to carry on and read the next volume very soon. I know it’s not going to be an easy ride but I know she’ll write it so well.