Book Review

Maya Angelou’s I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS and MOM & ME & MOM

Angelou, Maya - COVERS ONLY COLLAGE.jpgTitle: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
Author: Maya Angelou
Format: Audiobook (narrated by: Maya Angelou)
Start Date: October 13, 2016
End Date: November 7, 2016
Rating: 4 stars (both)

Sympathy
By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels,
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!

The last stanza of this previous poem served as inspiration for the title of Maya Angelou’s first of seven autobiographical works, and perhaps her most well-known work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

angelou-maya-quote

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson (April 4, 1928 to May 28, 2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist.” Over the course of her life, “[s]he 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.” (source: Wikipedia).

Although I recognized Maya Angelou, I did not actually know that much about her. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicled the early life of Angelou. It covered the period from when she was around three years old (when she and her brother, Bailey, went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas) to the point when she was seventeen (right after she gave birth to her son). The story was told so openly, with great insight not only to Angelou’s personal triumphs and tribulations, but to what it was like to grow up as a Black female in the South (and later in California).

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.

It was amazing to listen to the audiobook narrated by Angelou herself. It added another depth of personalization to the story. It felt like she was sitting there telling me about her life.

Angelou’s seventh autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, is often considered as a sequel to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. While I wouldn’t quite call it a sequel, it did a good job summarizing Angelou’s first autobiography, then extending the narrative throughout the next few decades of her life. It was a good summarizing work, since I did not read her other five works. There were a few parts that seemed odd to me, mostly because there were some slight discrepancies between what happened in her first and seventh autobiography, though I attribute it to the need to make the narrative flow better.

Unlike her first work, Mom & Me & Mom focused on the relationship Angelou had with her mother, Vivian Baxter. The autobiography was broken into two sections. In the first section, entitled Mom & Me, Angelou struggled with the fact that her mother had given her up when she was three years old, sending her to live in Stamps, Arkansas with her paternal grandmother. Even after moving to California to live with her when she was thirteen, along with her brother, she was still resentful, deciding to call her “Lady” rather than “Mother.”

In both Mom & Me & Mom and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at least in the beginning, Vivian Baxter was not painted in the most flattering light. She was beautiful but imposing, often quick to anger, vindictive, and violent. She was not the kind of woman who should not be tasked with raising small children.

However, as the story progresses, we get a different view of Vivian Baxter: she is kind, compassionate, understanding, and charitable. In the second section, entitled Me & Mom, this is the picture that Angelou paints. She explains how her mother earned the title “Mother” rather than “Lady.” Vivian Baxter helped an unwed Angelou raise her child, she supported her in her career decisions (like when Angelou went to Europe for a role in Porgy & Bess), and even was there for her daughter during her first marriage to Tosh Angelos, who Vivian did not approve of. Angelou recounts these many stories of support that her mother showed her throughout the years.

She had my back, supported me. This is the role of the mother, and in that visit I really saw clearly, and for the first time, why a mother is really important. Not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles and even mollycoddles a child, but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap. She stands between the unknown and the known. In Stockholm, my mother shed her protective love down around me and without knowing why people sensed that I had value.

angelou-and-vivian-baxter
Maya Angelou and Vivian Baxter.

Vivian Baxter died in 1991. While on her deathbed, Angelou told her mother:

I took her hand and said, “I’ve been told some people need to be given permission to leave. I don’t know if you are waiting, but I can say you have done all you came here to do.

“You’ve been a hard worker – white, black, Asian, and Latino women ship out of San Francisco port because of you. You have been a shipfitter, a nurse, a real estate broker, and a barber. Many men and – if my memory serves me right – a few women risked their lives to love you. You were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult.”

In this book, we learn why Vivian Baxter gave up her two small children, sending them away from her to live with a grandmother far away in Arkansas. Though initially resentful, Angelou learned to understand her mother and to love her for who she was, flaws and all.

I felt like I gained a new perspective after listening to these two books by the great Maya Angelou. Angelou had a hard life, but she was able to turn it into a positive. She was raped at eight; she endured racism in the South (and everywhere else she went) as a Black female; she bore and raised a child at seventeen alone, though with help from her Mother; she was severely beaten by a former boyfriend; and so on. But she endured. She got back up and fought. It might have been hard – I could not imagine what she must have gone through – but she overcame. She was a beautiful person. She was able to write down her life in such a way that was moving and poignant. She was who she was because of her past, but she didn’t let it define her. She fought and she overcame.

Frequently, I have been asked how I got to be this way. How did I, born black in a white country, poor in a society where wealth is adored and sought after at all costs, female in an environment where only large ships and some engines are described favorably by using the female pronoun – how did I get to Maya Angelou?

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