On 25 May I was browsing the books at the monthly Bookswapper’s Club meeting when Maya Angelou’s name caught my eye. My mind returned to earlier that day as I was rushing about at work, preparing for an event. In the midst of all the stress I recalled the sound of my boss’s voice telling me that Maya Angelou was dead. With everything going on I had completely forgotten about this until the moment I saw her name in a box of books. I immediately asked for confirmation from my fellow bookswappers:
‘Did Maya Angelou die today?’
‘Yes’, replied a man standing next to me.
The news made me sad, despite the fact that I had actually never read a book by her. Well, it is never too late to read a book, so I picked up I know why the caged bird sings, the first of the 7 volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, and began reading it on the bus ride home later that evening.
The book is sad, moving and sometimes uplifting. It is a window into the reality of growing up as a African American girl in the southern states of the United States in the 1930’s. Many things are bad about the life described. There is poverty, disciplining of children with violence (common back then but still not pleasant) and even rape, but nothing affected me as much as the constant humiliation of African Americans by the white people. Bad things can happen to you and you survive and move on with your life, but how do you move on from constantly being made to feel like a lesser person, because of the colour of your skin. A black woman would never be called Mrs so-and-so by a white person. Event the poorest white children would refer to her by first name. In one episode Maya, known by her real name Marguerite, is working as a maid in the home of a white lady. When the lady of the house finds Marguerite too cumbersome a name, she simply re-names her Mary. But who is she to take away a persons name and give her another one? At another occasion a white man comes to speak at Maya’s graduation ceremony. He talks of the improvements that are being made to the schools in the area. The school for white children will receive a new arts teacher and science equipment, and the school for black children will receive new sports facilities. With those words the hopes of the young graduates are trodden into the mud. You will never be scientists, is what he is saying, sportsmen is the best you can aspire to. Being told that one is never going to achieve anything of importance is as good a cage as any steel bars. Only the very strongest ones can break through to live the life they dream of.
The power of the book is to make the reader live the humiliation of incidents such as the ones I have described. I had not expected that that these small daily humiliations would upset me more than the rape scene. But rape can happen to anybody, irrespective of skin colour. It is the actions of one bad/sick/angry person (well, in this case at least). The keeping down of an entire population by ‘ordinary people’ is an injustice that says something about the human race as a whole. And it ain’t pretty. Of course segregation in the United States is not the only example of such behaviour. Apartheid in South Africa and the cast system in India are obvious examples, but unfortunately the human tendency to look down on and humiliate those we believe to be our lessers is not limited to any single group.
While going on this rant about injustice I might have forgotten to mention that this is a beautifully written coming-of-age story, and well worth the read. It is not only a series of less than pleasant experiences, but also a glimpse into the mind of young girl, with all the misunderstandings and realisations (both funny and sad) that come with growing up.