The essence escapes but its aura remains

i know why the caged bird singsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

Once again, I thought I had read this before and that this would be a re-read, but nope, it was all new to me. I guess that sometimes happens with much-talked-about books. Anyway, now I actually have read it and it is just as amazing as everyone always said it is.

This is the first book in Maya Angelou’s seven volumes of autobiography, covering her childhood in Arkansas and California. Hers was an eventful life, and yet her writing is beautiful enough that the book hardly needs events to make it a great read.

Angelou was sent with her brother to live with their grandmother when she was three, and this is where her story begins. She was very aware of her status as a black girl with a plain face and writes with a tense humour about the white side of town. But she had a comfortably-off family (her Momma ran a successful general store) relative to many others in Stamps, Arkansas – a downtrodden, dirt-ridden place from her descriptions.

“A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things’…But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.”

Visits to and from her parents in those years are full of strangeness and heightened emotion. She knows discrimination and horrors, but she also experiences joy, often related to her beloved brother Bailey – her partner in crime, and in everything else. There’s also the joy she finds in books, epitomised in the episode when she is encouraged to read the books of a kindly neighbour:

“I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears.”

She has a wonderfully poetic turn of phrase (fittingly, for a poet), whether discussing food or friendship or rape or tedium and monotony. But that never makes the prose dense or hard to read.

“Weekdays revolved on a sameness wheel. They turned into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday’s rough draft. Saturdays, however, always broke the mould and dared to be different.”

There are so many warm, rich characters here, from the hands-off always-business-like Momma to the glamorous and beautiful Mother, from the multiply disabled Uncle Willie to the small graceful Bailey. There are moments that are shocking, and moments that are simple and ordinary.

I am struggling to say something constructive through my fandom of this book. Read it. Read her poetry too – she was a wonderful poet.

First published 1969 by Random House.

Source: Durdham Down Bookshop.