A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The above poem by Maya Angelou (not from this book, by the way) encapsulates in a few lines why the voices of protest are the loudest, and the literature the most powerful when it is forcefully suppressed. Because the only thing the caged bird can do is sing, he will keep on doing it, lest he go mad. Poetry will keep on flowing out of the decapitated head of Orpheus.
I understand that this book has been banned multiple times. Not surprising, considering that the words of the poet have more power than swords or bullets, as proved time and again by history.
Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when their parents’ marriage fell apart. It was the early thirties, and the North and the South of USA were poles apart as far as coloured people were concerned; in the North, they were part of the society (albeit an insular one) while in the South, they were the despised ‘niggers’.
Maya spent most of the formative part of her childhood down south. Her grandmother (‘Momma’) was a singularly resourceful woman who owned a store: they managed to live in relative comfort even during the Depression era. However, this material comfort was offset by the fact that they were always the hated ‘other’ – the ‘whitefolk’ who lived apart (almost a mythical race, in Maya’s young mind) were powerful and whimsical gods who could visit death and destruction any time on any black man or woman. Even the ‘powhitetrash’, the drifters and squatters who had the fortune to be born into the Anglo-Saxon race, could insult even the propertied black people with impunity.
When she was eight years old, Maya’s father took her brother and herself to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here the incident which was to become the turning point of her life happened. The eight-year old girl was raped by her mother’s current boyfriend, Mr. Freeman: he managed to wiggle out of jail only to be murdered, presumably by Maya’s maternal uncles who were also the town toughs. As a result of this, she became a virtual mute for almost five years.
Sent back to Stamps, Maya continued her zombie-like existence until she was brought back into the world of the living by Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend – she did this by the expedient of introducing the girl to books. Maya found refuge in the world of imagination, and slowly came back to normal.
She again went to live with her mother in California when she was 15. During this sojourn, she visited her father in Southern California where another traumatic event in her life took place. After a frightening journey across the border into Mexico along with her father (when she was forced to drive a car back to the US in the night with him passed out in the back – even though she was not a qualified driver!), Maya was attacked and stabbed by her father’s girlfriend. She quit home and lived for a month in a junkyard, with similar social drop-outs, before returning to her mother.
A month of living in the rough had emboldened the shy and withdrawn girl. Maya decided to get a job as a streetcar conductor, even though the occupation was closed to blacks, and succeeded: the activist and rebel were just emerging. The first installment of this extended autobiography ends with the picture of Maya as a teen mother, of a child conceived out of a casual sexual encounter which she had just to satisfy that she was ‘normal’ (that is, heterosexual)!
Maya writes with a disarming honesty and a genuine sense of humour. Even the most distressing events are discussed casually – the child’s eye view is done really well. The book is eminently readable. Still, is this a great book? I would not say so. Good, yes: genuinely great, no.
The causal tone, for me, took away most of the poignancy. Even the extremely distressing rape incident – though described in gory detail – fails to really make an impact. My personal feeling is that this is the author’s way of coping with personal trauma: you take the emotion out of it. However, it might come across to people that her mother never cared much (I have found this view expressed on one or two of the one-star reviews for this book on this site).
However, I salute Maya’s courage in writing this explicit memoir. Being a black woman, she feels disadvantaged thrice, as she says:
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.
So maybe, the best defence is to attack. Throw the hypocrisy of society back in its face. Say: “This is I. Accept me for what I am, whether you like what you see or not!”