I owe a debt of profound gratitude to my friend Vill Harmon (second from left in this photo with my good friends and two ACT3 board members). Vill is the secretary in the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July (2015) Vill and I shared a conversation about our background, especially in terms of race and the South. Vill is African-American, and a great friend. I have come to cherish her advice and joyful spirit. When Vill encourages me to think about my past, and the present issue of race in America, I try to listen. In July she told me I should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), written by the famous Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014). (Maya’s first name came from her brother Bailey when she was a child.)
Maya Angelou was an author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. She was also credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over fifty years. She read several of her poems at the inauguration of President Clinton, appropriately so because Maya grew up in rural Stamps, Arkansas. Ms. Angelou received dozens of awards and more than fifty honorary degrees yet when all is said and done she is best known for her seven autobiographies. These seven books all focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. I had never read any of her highly-acclaimed books until I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House). In this amazing story she tells of events that shaped her life up to age of seventeen. The book brought Maya Angelou international recognition and acclaim, especially after Oprah Winfrey became her fan. I now understand why. Her’s is an utterly amazing story of growing up poor and black in the South. It is also very well written. At times you cry, at others you will laugh aloud. It is prose that moves the soul.
I personally knew poor black people in the South in my 1950s childhood, or I thought I knew them. Yet I never understood their plight and culture as I now do after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also understand why Vill told me to read the book. My depth of understanding has been profoundly altered by it. And my desire to become a more skilled “reconciler” has been powerfully shaped by this book.
Maya Angelou became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer and cast member for a famous opera. She also became coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a journalist overseas. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Maya was at first timid about getting involved in Civil Rights but she worked with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In the early 1990s, she made numerous lecture appearances each year thereafter into her eighties.
It was with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that Maya Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life not previously known. This personal material makes her book unique and heart-changing. She soon became a spokesperson for black people and women. Her works are now seen by many as a defense of Black culture. Sadly, several attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. As is always the case this only made her work even more highly valued. Some have called Maya Angelou’s major works autobiographical fiction. For the life of me I do not see why. What she did, and this was new at the time in American writing, was to challenge the common structure of the autobiography. She did this by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre in a previously undeveloped way in American literature. Wikipedia says, “Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel.” Quite true!
I will not say more about her life and written corpus since you can discover all that I’ve written online. The Wikipedia article, from which I’ve drawn a great deal of what I wrote above, is quite full. It seems to me to be pretty accurate with all the sources you want.
What I wish to say about this book is quite simple. If you want to understand race in America, especially in the context of family and poverty, you should read this classic memoir/autobiography. It will move you deeply if you have an ounce of compassion at all. I can never think about my childhood in middle Tennessee (my mother and father were both from rural Arkansas) in the same “innocent” way again. Maya Angelou opened my eyes but she also reached into my heart. I only regret that it took me this long to finally read her most famous book. I expect I will read more of her work very soon. Thank you Vill Harmon, my good friend. I am so glad you urged me to read this book last summer. My copy is going back to the Carol Stream Library today. I expect I’ll soon read another of her books very soon. I hope some of you will try this one and see what it does to your heart as a lover of Christ and an agent of reconciliation. If we are to grasp the lives we lead we must know people and read books like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.