A small introduction: this is one of the autobiographical works of Maya Angelou, an African American poet. It chronicles her childhood, her experience of growing up in the segregated South, falling in love with literature and words, and the insulated, complicated world of being young and a girl and black.
I think I knew going in that this book would be an emotional experience, and this review is going to be no less objective. Angelou’s writing is very engaging – she pulls you in by degrees, spooling out threads of superficial information that then wind into anecdotes of depth and poignancy and you’re left feeling a bit breathless. There were times when I had to pause and look up, get my bearings, or let her words soak in, or wait for the sudden pressure in my chest to ease a little.
I fell most in love with the little girl that Angelou was. Reading her words, I could conjure up the image of the solemn, somber little girl, given to bursts of imagination and whimsy, who adored her older brother fiercely. Angelou manages to capture that suffocated childhood state of feeling like adults (and others) will never quite understand what you mean, and that you don’t exactly know how to make them understand.
This book is famous for making many banned book lists, mainly due to its straightforward approach to the young Maya’s experience of being raped. It was one of the worst parts to read, not solely because of the horrible act, but because of the young Maya’s confusion and bewilderment, and guilt radiates out from the pages. I could feel my insides shaking at the fact that guilt was involved, but at the same time felt the confusion this child had to undergo through an experience she couldn’t quite understand, or quell her guilt at the storm that the situation caused. Again, it was the child’s viewpoint that was at the forefront – here were all these angered, outraged adults flying into a frenzy to get justice, but no one seemed to be pausing to understand the emotions of the child at the center.
Worse is the aftermath as little Maya retreats into a shell, unable to engage in the bustling world around her with her usual wonder and curiosity. Angelou describes a literal dulling of her world and you feel your heart grow heavy for her. And my favorite part comes, in Chapter 15, when this subdued child finally finds that magical thread to pull her back into the world again: poetry.
“Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single world.”
I felt gratitude for this woman who seemed to revitalize the young Maya that I had come to love. Of course you learn that it is also due to Maya’s grandmother’s planning that the lady does reach out to Maya. Momma Johnson, as Maya refers to her grandmother, is a towering image of pride and grace at the center of Maya’s life. As with little Maya, I fell in love with her, too, but more so in awe of her. She deals with the injustices that come her way with an iron-rod spine, taking her grandchildren under her wing and leading by example. A heartbreaking moment is when you see this pillar of a woman be treated with cavalier disrespect by the white children of the village, as she stands there with quiet resilience. The tragedy of it cuts like a knife, and I have to admit I found myself weeping at that point.
It’s a beautifully written autobiography. Angelou writes in such a way that you can feel her sitting there, explaining it all to you. It makes me miss her even more.
Some lines that left an impression on me:
“People whose history and future were each day threatened by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all.”
“I lay on a moment of green grass and telescoped the children’s game to my vision.”
“I don’t think she understood half of what she was saying herself, but, after all, girls have to giggle, and after being a woman for three years, I was about to become a girl.”
“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.