I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the concept of rape. I was mortified. Especially that it could happen to a girl younger than me. And to one who hadn’t even started her period. I was young enough when I read that book not to have started my own, but I knew that milestone was imminent. I was a bit afraid of being a girl then, vulnerable to what I perceived as a violation only possible for females to experience.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the idea that mothers didn’t always take good care of their children. I was mystified. There were wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. There were orphans who never knew their mothers. There were mothers who died in childbirth or when their children were young. But I was naive at that age, presuming all living mothers loved their kids and, therefore, took good care of them. I was mighty glad then that God made grandmothers and that Maya and Bailey had such a wise, kind, respectable one of those to look after them. I worried about them when they were with their mother. I hated that boyfriend that raped Maya, whose death rendered her mute for a while. But I was glad when he was dead. And I was glad she had Bailey. I was glad I had a brother, too. Who knew when we might need each other?
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to memoir, the genre I’ve always prefered to write. I’d read biographies. I’d read fiction. But I’d never read a true story that captivated me more, that wove the truth with suspense, that read like fiction. I devoured it. And when I’d finished, I clutched it to my chest and cried, not really even understanding the depth of the emotion I was feeling. I was simply moved to tears. The next day I turned back to page one and started rereading this important book. Any other book would have seemed … petty, inferior, would not have held my attention. I needed to reread this one. The writing was compelling. It affected the way I looked at the world, society, the times in which I was living, and my own white, female life. Maybe Maya Angelou’s classic is why I’ve always preferred writing memoir, having experienced at such an impressionable age, the power her personal narrative had on me, let alone a whole generation.
When I was a college student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I think I might have heard her speak. I know I heard Cicely Tyson, and I think perhaps Maya Angelou spoke there also, both having appeared recently in the TV mini-series, “Roots.” The program had taken the nation by storm, my own white but liberal household included. It was 1977 and I sat in our den on our shag carpet, leaning up against the olive-green corduroy sofa petting my dog, Buttons, while my mother and brother and I sat glued to each episode. Mom had been active in the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina in the ’60’s and early ’70’s and I would graduate from the famous Little Rock Central High School the following year. I was drawn to the study of the social disparities of the day like a moth to the light. At Chapel Hill, I had access to many fascinating and thought-provoking lecturers, speakers, and professors. Maya Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas intrigued me, and her books, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and We Are All Gathered Here, had made indelible impressions on me. If she came to speak in Chapel Hill between 1978 and 1982, I know I was in the audience.
Of course I’ve heard her since in countless interviews on national television, at President Clinton’s inauguration, even on Sesame Street when my kids were young. And, today, on the day of her death, I have been drawn to Facebook posts and internet memorials, unable to work on my own memoir-in-progress that takes place here in North Carolina, the state which has been blessed to claim the amazing Dr. Angelou since 1982. Thanks to Maya, we know why the caged bird sings. Now, even as we mourn, we bless her as we throw open the doors of this earthly cage and release her into the glorious realm of heaven. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou, rest in peace.