A friend of mine once went to attend a reading by writer Maya Angelou at a bookstore. By the time she got there the reading was over, but a few of her friends were still there and the bookstore had copies of one of Angelou’s books that my friend had been looking for. So she stayed, chatted and picked up the book. During the course of the evening she talked to an African-American woman she had never met before. When it was time to leave, the woman asked my friend if she wanted her to sign her book. Puzzled, my friend said, “sure”. Later on, after paying for the book and leaving, my friend opened the book, glanced at the signature on the fly-leaf and realised the woman she had been talking to was Maya Angelou herself!
So who was Maya Angelou? A writer and poet, she also worked as a waitress, a singer, a dancer, a mechanic and many other things. Inspired by the civil rights campaign for African-Americans in the 1950s, she spend time working for two of the major leaders of the movement – peace-loving Martin Luther King, Jr and firebrand Malcolm X.
She is probably best known for her seven volumes of autobiography, starting with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969 and culminating with Mom & Me & Mom in 2013. Like George Orwell’s memoirs of his life as a homeless person, Down And Out In Paris And London, or Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, these are not just accounts of one person’s life experiences, although that is a vital part of their importance, but are chronicles of a section of society or societies, important eyewitness accounts of things that may be dry historical facts to us otherwise. It also helps that they are wonderfully written, truly deserving the title of literature.
You see, Maya Angelou happened to be poor, black and a woman in times when all these things put her at a great disadvantage in her country – not that these things still don’t disadvantage people and not just in her country. Her book I Know Why The Caged Bird sings brings us face to face with segregation. Segregation was the reality of life for African-Americans in pre-1950s America. Put simply, it meant that white people and black people could not work together, live together or attend the same schools. Even the poorest, stupidest white person was considered a cut above any black person.
Maya and her brother were hurtled into the midst of this reality when they were sent to live with their grandmother in the small town her mother came from. Her grandmother ran a general store and commanded respect among African-American people. But she had to mutely accept it when even a young white girl was rude to her. Observing these things taught young Maya a lot about the social and political ills of her nation. Worse yet, like many vulnerable little girls, Maya fell prey to sexual abuse by a man who was dating her mother. He was eventually killed in a form of homespun justice by Maya’s uncles, and this left her with a sense of guilt that she was only able to emerge from through the influence of a teacher, who introduced her to the world of literature.
One of the most inspiring parts of Angelou’s memoirs is learning how she discovered not just the usual canonical writers like Shakespeare and Dickens, but inspiring African-American writers like Langston Hughes, W E B Dubois and many more. Years later, her friendship with another African-American writer, James Baldwin, led to his suggestion that she write these memoirs. Perhaps you have felt the same looking at your English textbooks, and glimpsing a Narayan, a Tagore or a Naidu among all those long list of English names. It is important to have a sense of the world, but equally important to hear and respond to the voice of your own people and add yours to theirs, and eventually to the world’s. And that is what this poor little black girl, who rose through poverty and a succession of hardscrabble jobs, did.
I’ll end with a small quote from Maya Angelou’s poem, Caged Bird, which explains the title of her first volume of memoirs:
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.