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.
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.)