Come Sit with Maya Angelou

Sometimes I sit with Maya Angelou. Dr. Maya Angelou. I mean, I sit on my couch with my laptop in my lap, my left knee bent, my left heel tucked under my right butt cheek, and Maya Angelou on YouTube (three and a half minutes below). She is probably the wisest, most accessible, most inspirational person I know. God rest her soul.

I discovered Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings maybe just five or six years ago, and this book catapulted into the status of my all-time favorite. Since then, I’ve reread it a few times, as much for Angelou’s style as the strength of her story. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. She would go on to thrive against all odds. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series. I still have four to go.

The Heart of a Woman (1981), fourth in the series, follows Angelou from 1957-1962, from California to New York City, Cairo to Ghana. She arrives in New York as a singer/dancer, joins the Harlem Writers Guild, becomes a civil rights activist, and raises her teenaged son. Angelou is the epitome of determination, only one of the reasons I find myself sitting with her.

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is a series of essays, a quick little read, published between her fifth and sixth memoirs. She opens up about her marriages, sensuality, sexuality—what it means to be human, American, and a black American. I sit with her in part due to her honesty.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) is the sixth of the series, and once more the title refers back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” This volume begins as Maya Angelou returns from Africa to the US to work with Malcolm X. As she arrives, she learns that Malcom X has been assassinated, and violence in Watts explodes. She meets Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks her to become his coordinator in the north, and then he is assassinated. A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya Angelou begins to write the first sentences of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.”

Still on my to-read list:

  • Gather Together in My Name (1974, volume two) follows Maya as a single, teenaged mother sliding down the social ladder into poverty and crime.
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976, volume three) spans the years of 1949-1955, Angelou’s early twenties and her struggles to support her son, form meaningful relationships, and establish herself in the entertainment world.
  • All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, volume five) recounts Angelou’s years in Accra, Ghana between 1962-1965 and her return to the United States. Racism and the journey continue to be themes.
  • Mom & Me & Mom (2013, volume seven) was published shortly before Angelou’s 85th birthday and focuses on her relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter. In earlier volumes (the ones I’ve read anyway), Baxter remains an enigma of sorts, and this final volume fills some gaps. Even though it’s still on my to-read list, I’m inspired that Angelou continued to write until the end of her life. Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.

Are you interested in diversifying your reading experiences? Here’s a list of 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read. Let’s agree to add Paul Laurence Dunbar and make it eleven. I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Sympathy

BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
 
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
 
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he 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!

(This post inspired by my friends Rhonda at Pollyanna’s Path and Greg at A Thousand Miles from Kansas for their kindness in award nominations and their understanding of my Q & A rule breaking. When you have a chance, go check out their awesome blogs.)

51 thoughts on “Come Sit with Maya Angelou

  1. I still need to read her books. First I’m in the middle of carry on warrior. And started the Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. From what I’ve seen you’d like the book. Never finished the 4 agreements. Not finished Goodbye Ed. Or Face the fear. And I have a book on nonviolent communication and waking the tiger…. I can go on and on…. I tend to start books and then get distracted and then forget about them. Need to finish some of these before anything else…. and I also want to read a book that I can’t remember the title of. Oh yeah – the subtle art of not giving a . Just not sure if I want to see so much swearing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m up to twenty books for the year, which way more than usual (you know, school), but it’s been great exposure to titles I might not have ever picked up on my own. I’ll add Big Leap to the list.

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  2. You’re wonderful, as usual ! Thank you for sharing – I’m a little ignorant of your writers… I really like the title of this book – I’m going to put it first on my list (and hope for a French translation!).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for this post, Crystal-and the shout out for my blog! It is much, much appreciated right now. I have more time to read these days so I will be checking out your book suggestions.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I read Beloved several years ago and wow…heartbreaking and amazing. I have yet to read Maya Angelou yet, which is ridiculous, so I will be rectifying that soon.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Now I have to read A Song Flung Up to Heaven. For some reason, a few days ago I was wondering what it was like to live during a time of so many assassinations: MLK Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy. We are surrounded by people who were in their teen years and 20s and 30s at this time, but few will talk about it beyond noting a feeling of utter numbness, disbelief, anger. I like to ask about such things, and I often get, “I can’t talk about that.” Sometimes, a person will share where they were the moment they learned the news. Maya Angelou has a gift for putting words to trauma that make the experiences clear and as you say accessible. I wonder what it was like to do daily life with its everyday stressors and family drama with the backdrop of social unrest pushing its way into the everyday and then having your heroes fall one by one. I wonder if the years blurred into one. Yes, I have to read A Song Flung Up to Heaven now. You also reminded me to read Amiri Baraka. I have not read anything by him in a long time. Last night I started Ellison’s Invisible Man, and wow! I had to convince myself to turn out the light and rest.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good morning, Kionna! Heart of a Woman is star-studded, too. MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, James Earl Jones, and Cecily Tyson all appear. Maya Angelou was performing—singing, dancing, and acting—before her writing takes off and before her involvement in the civil rights movement. I read those two out of order, but I highly suggest both. I hope that your own knowledge can be a segue into those critical conversations for added perspective.

      Invisible Man has been on my list for a few years, and I’m not familiar with Amiri Bakara. You inspire me to read something (besides Black Zodiac) before August 24th. ❤️

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  5. I too am a huge Maya fan, I’ve read just about everything she wrote but I too started with Why the Caged Bird Sings! Your summaries are excellent and you have me digging through my bookcase in search of Maya inventory. Thank you! Love this! C u

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I just finished Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now and really enjoyed it. I didn’t know that her autobiography spanned seven volumes… I feel a reading journey coming on! Thanks for the recommendations! 💕

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  7. I watched the video. “Just do right” is good advice. I also like how Maya challenges us to consider how our actions and attitudes effect others. Like you, I am a teacher. I’ve found that being kind and respectful to students is the best way to win them over. The vast majority of my students like me, and I am just fine with that. It’s a more effective strategy than being hated.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Love Maya Angelou. As an English teacher when I feel a group need a poem with immediate power and gravitas, Maya Angelou is my go-to. Read ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ earlier this year and helped me to put a lot of the poetry I already loved into context. Respect her a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope you can find it on your side. Maya Angelou incorporates PLD’s poem “We Wear the Mask” into one of her own and performs it. She is quite the actress. I have found a couple of versions.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Crystal, I also didn’t know that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is part of a seven-volume autobiographical series! I learned something new today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on her books. I like how you mention your love of her determination and honesty in her writing. Btw, when I read the title Mom & Me & Mom, I thought it can be a good writing prompt, I automatically thought of my mom! I’m off to watch the video you shared. Happy Sunday to you!

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