Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Over the course of the last three weeks, we’ve had a lot of fun learning about some of the inventions and innovations that African-Americans have come up with over the last two hundred years.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have learned a lot of things that I didn’t know.

But, since today is Wednesday, and since the Wednesday postings usually cover toys, games AND books, I didn’t think it would be right to end “Black History Month” off (well, for Wednesdays anyway) without bringing up a book that was written by an African-American author.  I know that I sort of did this already with the entries on “Roots”, “The Color Purple”, and “The Help”, but I mostly did this to do a feature on the associated films and television miniseries based from the books.

This week, we’re focusing solely on the book.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You probably didn’t log on here to read a book report.  I don’t blame you.  I hate writing book reports myself.  I find it much easier to write my own stories, not write about someone else’s.  But with this book fitting in so well with “Black History Month”, I had to write about it.

Have any of you ever heard of a writer named Maya Angelou?

She was born as Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri.  And, in her near eighty-five years on this planet, she has been through every possible thing imaginable, and came out from it being one of the most respected and cherished authors in the history of America.  She’s published six autobiographies, five collections of essays, several poetry anthologies, and has earned at least thirty honourary doctoral degrees.

And she certainly had a lot to write about.

When Angelou was just three, the stormy marriage of her parents ended, and she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother.  They lived there for a few years before being sent back to live with their mother by their father.  When Maya was eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and confessed it to her brother, who proceeded to tell the family.  He was sent to prison for twenty-four hours, and four days after his release, he was found murdered.  This event caused Maya to become mute for five years, because she had believed that by telling what had happened to her, she caused his death. 

If there were any positives that could be found in her five years of silence, it was that she developed the innate ability to listen to the world around her.  She surrounded herself in books and literature, and eventually with the aid of her teacher, Beatrice Flowers, she began to speak once more.

However, when Maya was seventeen, she became a single mother to a son, Clyde.  And, in order to support her child, she performed jobs that were very much illegal, which included a stint as a prostitute.  The whole struggle can be read in her autobiography “Gather Together In My Name”, her second of six autobiographies.

Of course, one of the main issues that Maya has been linked to is that of civil rights.  She made what could be considered a daring move in the early 1950s when she married a man of a different race (the man being Greek electrician/aspiring singer Tosh Angelos).  Although the marriage ended in 1954, the union did give Maya the opportunity to take dance classes, even forming a dance team with the legendary Alvin Ailey.

After hearing Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech in 1960, Angelou - along with her novelist friend James O. Killens – organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Leadership.  From there, she became an outspoken crusader against Apartheid, befriended Malcolm X, lived in Africa for three years, and helped build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Sadly, this period was filled with great loss for Angelou, as Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr was killed on April 4, 1968 – Angelou’s 40th birthday.

Despite this dark period, Angelou managed to work through her grief, and put forth some of her most emotional works to date...including a work of literature that she released in 1969.

Her very first autobiography was released entitled “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, and the book details Maya’s life from the age of three until the age of seventeen (or in other words, the summary I wrote in regards to Maya’s early life a few paragraphs above).  And certainly, one can argue that Maya’s early life was filled with a lot of pain and a lot of horrible circumstances...things that no child should ever have to endure.

As mentioned before, the book idea was given to Angelou at what was more than likely one of the lowest points of her life...the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Because it happened on her birthday, it took her a long time to even celebrate the day, and she was depressed for some time afterwards.  Her longtime friend and mentor James Baldwin attempted to try and cheer her up by taking her to a dinner party of cartoonist Jules Feiffer.  At the party, all the guests began telling stories of their childhood memories, and Angelou was one of those who opted to share, despite the painful moments that she experienced.  Her stories captivated Feiffer's wife, Judy.  Shortly after the dinner party, Judy called the number of Robert Loomis, of Random House Publishing, and told him of Maya's stories, insisting that the tales could make for an interesting book.

Initially, when approached with the idea to write a book, Angelou turned the offer down, as she saw herself as more of a poet (she had been writing poems since she was a teenager), not a novelist.  But she was later, by Angelou's own accounts, tricked into writing it courtesy of a little reverse psychology from Loomis (as per a suggestion from Baldwin).  When Loomis told her that writing an autobiography as literature was just about impossible, Angelou saw it as a challenge.  And given how her entire childhood was one challenge after another, she was one never to turn a challenge down!

So, I suppose you could say that "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" was kind of an exercise that was part healing, and part "I'll show you people!"

The writing process for "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" took nearly two years to complete, and one thing I will say about Maya Angelou was that when she sat down to write a project, she did not let anything keep her from doing it.  She made sure that there was nothing there to distract her.  If that meant removing all pictures and wall decorations from her hotel room, that's what happened.  If that meant only having a deck of cards on her person to play solitaire in hopes of getting into the right frame of mind, then that's what she did.  And, if that meant re-imagining pivotal moments that brought her great sadness and sorrow in order to get her points across, she did so fearlessly.

Now, here's a little bit of trivia for you.  Do you know how the title came to be?  Well, the actual title comes from a combnation of the works of an African-American poet named  Paul Laurence Dunbar, and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln.  Lincoln suggested the title, and the actual line comes from the third stanza of Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy"

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings -
I know why the caged bird sings.

But, you know something...the metaphor of a caged bird certainly fits the book that Maya wrote.  In many of Maya's literary works, she uses the image of a caged bird to represent slavery in the United States.  And, in some ways, the image of a caged bird represents the struggles that Maya went through.  For such pain to cause her to literally lose her voice for five years...well, I suppose that in many ways, Maya was trapped inside a cage herself.  It was only when she began to get her voice back through reading and learning that she began to "sing", so to speak.

The book also explains why Maya had such a strong passion towards making sure that African-Americans would one day receive equal rights.  When she and her brother lived with their grandmother, she was subjected to racism every day, and I think that coupled with the trauma of being raped at an early age, certainly contributed to Maya remaining silent for half a decade.  These instances of racism included...

- having to hide family members from the Ku Klux Klan
- having being told by a white speaker at her graduation ceremony that black students would not have the same opportunities as white students
- having to suffer from a rotting tooth because a white dentist refused to pull it out
- having a group of white children mercilessly teasing and bullying Maya and her family

As a result of some of the graphic scenes that are described in the book, the book is often challenged and banned from public schools...which is a shame, because her story is heartbreaking, yet captivating.  We see a young girl grow from being a victim of abuse and racism to a strong woman who has overcome many obstacles to get free.  And, while her life didn't begin to get better until she was an adult, she became better equipped to handle whatever life threw at her both physically and emotionally.

All because she let that caged bird sing.

No comments:

Post a Comment