Book Discussion – March 2018

Date/Time: Monday, March 5, 7:00 pm
Reading Selection: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
by Maya Angelou

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.  [Source: Amazon Books. Accessed 02-06-2018.]

An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Prologue

“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay . . .”

I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay . . .”

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

“What you looking at me for . . . ?”

The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness.

The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses. …  (Continue)

Editorial Reviews:

“Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from “the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood.” Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own “unshakable God”; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she’s sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says “It seemed that the peace of a day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect.” However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time. Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1969. Review Posted Online: May 14th, 2012.” Kirkus Reviews

“Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.” Goodreads

The first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography is proof of her inner strength and a testament to the power of words

The caged bird “sings of freedom”, writes Maya Angelou in her poem “Caged Bird” – a poignant recurring image throughout her work, as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. This evocative first volume of her six books of autobiography, originally published in 1969 (1984 in the UK), vividly depicts Angelou’s “tender years” from the ages of three to 16, partly in the American south during the depression-wracked 1930s, while also offering timeless insights into the empowering quality of books.

The painful sense of being unwanted haunts her early childhood, for when Maya (then known as Marguerite) is three and her brother Bailey four they are sent to the “musty little town” of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to “To whom it may concern”, dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their “calamitous marriage”. Living with their grandmother, “Momma”, who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets – nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover Mr Freeman (“a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”). After Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words.

Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs Bertha Flowers who, writes Angelou, “has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”. The memoir’s absorbing emotional arc traces Angelou’s growth from inferiority complex to confidence, finding the strength to tackle “the puzzle of inequality and hate” and be hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco thanks to her “honeycomb of determination”.

Challenging societal structures, Angelou also succeeds in altering literary structures, experimenting with the capabilities of memoir – indeed, her editor had dared her to “write an autobiography as literature”. Told with a winning combination of wit and wisdom, this is a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.” The Guardian

Biography

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

She became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, she made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, although attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. Angelou’s most celebrated works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics consider them to be autobiographies. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel. [Source: Wikipedia_1. Date accessed: February 14, 2018.]

The details of Angelou’s life described in her seven autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tended to be inconsistent. Critic Mary Jane Lupton has explained that when Angelou spoke about her life, she did so eloquently but informally and “with no time chart in front of her”.[97] For example, she was married at least twice, but never clarified the number of times she had been married, “for fear of sounding frivolous”;[71] according to her autobiographies and to Gillespie, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1974, and began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, but never formally married him. Angelou held many jobs, including some in the sex trade, working as a prostitute and madame for lesbians, as she described in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. In a 1995 interview, Angelou said, “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives”.[98]

Angelou had one son Guy, whose birth was described in her first autobiography, one grandson, and two great-grandchildren,[99] and according to Gillespie, a large group of friends and extended family.[note 14] Angelou’s mother Vivian Baxter died in 1991 and her brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., died in 2000 after a series of strokes; both were important figures in her life and her books.

Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She was found by her nurse. Although Angelou had reportedly been in poor health and had canceled recent scheduled appearances, she was working on another book, an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders. [Source: Wikipedia_2. Date accessed: February 14, 2018.]

Other Works

Angelou subsequently wrote six additional autobiographies, covering a variety of her young adult experiences. They are distinct in style and narration, but unified in their themes and stretch from Arkansas to Africa, and back to the US, from the beginnings of World War II to King’s assassination. Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted as a series of short stories, yet do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include:

  • Gather Together in My Name (1974)
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976)
  • The Heart of a Woman (1981)
  • All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
  • Mom & Me & Mom (2013)

Angelou wrote five collections of essays, which writer Hilton Als called her “wisdom books” and “homilies strung together with autobiographical texts”. … [Her] long and extensive career also included poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She was a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during his inauguration in 1993.

Angelou’s successful acting career included roles in numerous plays, films, and television programs, including her appearance in the television mini-series Roots in 1977. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced, and she was the first African-American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998.

Videos

Going Home With Maya Angelou (1982)
Interviewer: Bill Moyers    Over the years and on several occasions, Bill interviewed Maya Angelou, the legendary author who died in May. Here, Moyers revisits an interview from 1982 in which he and Angelou returned to the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, where she spent much of her childhood.  Published online on Aug 7, 2014

Phenomenal Woman
Book: Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women written and narrated by author Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou introduces Letter to My Daughter
Angelou introduces her inspirational new book, Letter to My Daughter.

And Still I Rise
Maya Angelou

[Source:  https://www.goodreads.com/videos/list_author/3503.Maya_Angelou .  Date Accessed:  February 15, 2018.]

New York Times Obituary for Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86

By MARGALIT FOX

MAY 28, 2014

 

Other Websites

MAYA ANGELOU Home

MAYA ANGELOU Facebook

Amazon Maya Angelou Page

Goodreads Maya Angelou Page

 

 


 

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