This month’s featured author, Maya Angelou, is a Black American memoirist, poet and civil rights activist. She tells her story about growing up in the south through her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Last week, we talked about two women who also knew a lot about the Civil Rights Movement and had parents who were involved. Here is a link to it Diverse Women in Key Roles in our country. Maya Angelou tells her story from her experience of living in the south prior to the civil rights movement.
She was born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas.
Her and her brother Bailey, Jr. were sent to live in Stamps with their paternal grandmother who they referred to as Momma. They moved to St. Louis to live with their mom for a very short time, but were sent back to live with their grandmother.
Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou picked a very interesting title for her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is a memoir, about growing up Black in the south prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Her writing style is autobiographical and as I was reading it, I could imagine where she was. Through our dive into diversity this quarter, I learned more about what people of color experienced due to the racial inequality of the times and what still exists. But what she experienced is still shocking to me.
This book became a banned book due to the subject matter she presented about her life. While visiting her mom in St. Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven. After she gave her testimony in court, he was released from jail and killed shortly there after. Maya blamed herself for his murder with the trauma she already had from the rape, became a mute for the next six years of her life. She moved from St. Louis back to live with her grandmother in Arkansas.
While in Arkansas, her interest in the written word blossomed by writing essays, poetry and keeping a journal of her thoughts. In addition, she memorized poetry by Shakespeare and Poe.
Do we know why the caged bird sings? It is a metaphor. The cage represents the oppression of sexism and the abuse that Maya Angelou suffered. The singing of that caged bird is indicative of a voice that remains through oppression. In other words, anyone who is caged will always wish for freedom knowing if others have it, they should have it too.
Where did she go from here?
After publishing her first book in 1969, Angelou publishes thirty-five more. Each one of her works explores the celebrations and struggles found in the human experience.
In the summer of 1944, she gave birth to her only child, Clyde Bailey (Gus) Johnson. In 1949 she married an electrician in the US Navy, Tosh Angelos. Even though their marriage ended in 1952, she adopted a version of his surname and kept it throughout the rest of her life.
She joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild in 1959. Through her participation in this group, she began to write what would be her first published book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Many schools wanted the book banned for the content, but it is credited with helping other survivors of abuse tell their stories.
She went on to publish six more autobiographical books and many volumes of poetry.
Her Diversity Story
Maya Angelou is an American memoirist, poet, writer, activist, and educator. She is one of the world’s most well-known African-American poets. She created her life by navigating the challenges of being Black and a woman before and during the civil rights movement. Her diversity story is shown through all of the things she accomplished.
- Writing in her unique and pioneering style
- She was the first African American woman street car conductor in San Francisco
- The first African American woman to have a screen play turned into a film. It was a production of Georgia, Georgia
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014
- Many awards and honors for her writing and activism for the rights of people of color
Just doing one of these things as a Black woman during that time was a great achievement. By fighting against being different she didn’t let the barriers society put in front of her get in her way. And she achieved much more. Her legacy continues through the Caged Bird Legacy and many other charities supported by this organization.
To learn more about her and her writing, check out her website Maya Angelou.