Trigger warning for rape and abuse.
This book is the first in Maya Angelou’s six part series of autobiographies. They have become classics, and the first book is used on high school curricula in America. It was third on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, due to its graphic sexual content.
I find it hard to read books that chronicle so much suffering, like this one, because they are so disturbing. It made it even more difficult to read knowing that every word was true. While I admire the strength it must have taken to get through these events, I was shocked by how neglectful Angelou’s parents were just as much as by the racism that Angelou encounters.
This first part follows Angelou’s childhood in the American South in the 1930s. After their parents’ divorce, she and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou feels ugly compared to the white children, even the “powhite folks”, and does not feel equal to the other black children either. At first, the book seems to have the childlike innocence of To Kill a Mockingbird — a child observing racism but unable to understand it. The tone of the book becomes steadily more horrible and disturbing as Angelou encounters more racism and abuse.
One day, her father arrives and takes Angelou and her brother to live with their mother. She is raped by her mother’s lover when she is just eight years old. She stops speaking because of the trauma. When she returns to Stamps, a friendly neighbour, Mrs Bertha Flowers, helps her to heal through literature. She shows Angelou the importance of literature and the power of language, something she takes with her for the rest of her life.
I was shocked by how little her parents seemed to care for her. Her father takes her to Mexico, but ends up getting drunk, falling asleep, and leaving her alone to figure out how to drive the car and get them home. Angelou is then stabbed by her father’s lover in an argument. She runs away from her father and lives in a car junkyard for a month, and neither parent seems bothered that she is missing. Her mother seems better at looking after her, but she doesn’t notice that Angelou is pregnant even when she is eight and a half months gone.
This may be a harrowing read, but that is no reason for American schools to ban it. I don’t think this book would be suitable for children, but I think that teenagers could cope with it. Angelou is candid about her life and experiences, and as long as students are aware of the content before they read it, there is no reason to shelter them from the realities of racism and abuse.
If you enjoyed this book, I would recommend reading Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, a semi-autobiographical novel about the role of the Christian Church in African American communities. Baldwin, along with editor Robert Loomis, challenged Angelou to write this autobiography, and it is well worth a read.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. London: Virago, 1999.