Maya Angelou’s classis literary autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores the famous poet’s early years growing up a Southern Black girl. The story begins with her moving to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her grandmother, whom she affectionately called “Momma”, and concludes with the birth of her son at age 17 while living with her mother in San Francisco, California.
The story begins around 1931 when Angelou was 3 years old. Her time in Stamps was marked by segregation of black and white society and by the underlying racism that required segregation. “In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like.”
Despite the ongoing Depression, Momma was reasonably successful, running a general store in the black community. Much of Angelou’s interaction with whites occurred at the store, especially the “powhitetrash” children. Because of Momma’s success, she owned some farmland, and there were several poor white families living there. Despite this situation, Angelou had to endure watching them mock and disrespect Momma, even going to the point of calling her by her first name, which no child would ordinarily do in the South.
Later, Angelou went to live with her mother in St. Louis, where she had to deal with a different form of abuse, rape by a boyfriend of her mother. She was 8 years old at the time. The boyfriend avoided jailtime only to be murdered shortly thereafter, probably by her mother’s brothers. The experience left Angelou feeling guilty. She turns inward, refusing to talk to anyone other than her brother. Shortly thereafter, she returns to Stamps.
It was there, in this reclusive state, that Momma introduced Angelou to Mrs. Flowers. “She was our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.” Mrs. Flowers nurtured Angelou’s love of books and learning and became a permanent example of “the measure of what a human being can be.” Perhaps more than anything else, this relationship provided the spark for Maya Angelou to become the person that she became.
Eventually, Momma sends Angelou and her brother to San Francisco, where their mother now lived, to escape the growing dangers of racism in Stamps. But she did not escape racism. “San Franciscans would have sworn on the Golden Gate Bridge that racism was missing from the heart of their air-conditioned city. But they would have been sadly mistaken.”
If Mrs. Flowers was the spark, San Francisco was the turning point. Here, she attended her first real school, eventually studying dance and drama on scholarship at the California Labor School. Here, she went on a grand Mexican adventure during summer break with her father. Here, she became the first black female cable car conductor. Here, she became a teenage mother. Here, she began her road to success.
The life of Maya Angelou offers many lessons for us today. Here are three.
Life is hard. The struggles that Angelou were not unique to her. We all struggle. We all face monsters. But we all must learn to press on the path of our lives.
Find a mentor. No one achieves anything alone. We all need someone to guide us, take us under our wing, and show us the possibilities of life.
Be persistent. It was not easy to become the first black female cable car conductor. Racism nearly blocked this opportunity. Instead of giving up, Angelou worked harder until she achieved her dream. That persistence continued throughout her life.
October 18 – 23, 2020