Note: This is an essay that I'm turning in when I go back to school as part of my summer reading project, so if I sound like I'm reaching at any point, that's probably why. I'm so awkward when it comes to school essays, guys. But I thought I'd share, because I think Twitter is impressed with me.
When I was younger, I didn’t have any clue who James Baldwin was, but I knew about Maya Angelou. I’ve heard people like Serena Williams recite Still I Rise, one of her poems, watched her receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, and noted that she was good friends with Oprah. I was devastated when she passed, not because I knew her personally, but because I hoped to. Reading this book was my chance to know her, to learn from her, even if it was a side that thousands of other readers had already met.
This book is an example of both feminism and fighting racism, all from a woman who didn’t seem like she would make something of herself when she was younger. Stories like hers, while I’m no stranger to them, always inspire me. Black women dealt with so much, and continue to do so, but it gets a little easier each generation because of the strength of those who come before us. I think this is a theme that’s also displayed in the book, because Maya and her brother, Guy, received strength and much of their sense of self while being raised by their grandmother.
Even though there were many times that this book was depressing, like when Maya recognized the racism that she lived through and the sexual assault she was faced with, I was surprised that the book was funny. I don’t know how she was able to find places to insert humor. When I first started the book, I expected stories of living in a segregated area and having to work as a made to white families in the south. What I didn’t expect were the stories of con men, wild parties, and sex.
I think that Angelou included bits of humor for the same reason why she probably searched for them in her actual life. It would’ve been impossible to live through all of the things that she did if she hadn’t been able to see the positive aspects of life, and I think that it’s the same for someone reading her story. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to read the book so quickly if it had just been a memoir of all of the horrible things that happened to her. Maybe she included these aspects because she recognized how much these memories hurt her. I’m not quite sure, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
I can’t help but feel that Maya Angelou was inspired by the times in which she wrote this book. By the time I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had both been assassinated. At the same time, the feminist movement was kicking up. I feel like that’s why she was able to talk about sex so freely. She doesn’t pull punches when talking about the racism that she faced, either, and I’m grateful. It’s important to know what people went through, so that we don’t forget.
There are some aspects of Maya’s story that I could relate to, despite the large period of time that separates us. Maya explored the self loathing that she felt toward herself and her appearance, wishing that she were a white girl with blonde hair. When I was younger, I also felt the same. I hated how dark my skin was, and wished that I were lighter. I begged my mother to straighten my hair, and when we finally did it for my fifth grade moving up ceremony, it poofed right back up because of the heat. I wanted to be a white girl so badly, because I knew then that I would truly be beautiful.
Often times, when I read the works of black people who have come before me, I expect that I won’t be able to relate to them. Each time, though, there’s always something (usually multiple somethings) that I relate to. I wonder now if some aspects of black life are just universal, or if these aspects of life are symptoms of racism that still haven’t been eradicated. On one hand, it’s comforting to feel connected to the characters in A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, or even characters in the sitcom Good Times. I feel connected, like I know these people, and it creates a sense of community. However, I’d rather feel connected to other black people because of other things like hair or skin.
Being able to connect because of our life experiences is often what brings people together, but most black people are sharing stories of hardship and trying to find small pieces of happiness within them. At the end of this book, Maya is sixteen, single, and pregnant. She’s content with where she’s at, especially since being a mother means that she’ll receive the love she hasn’t felt throughout the novel. However, it’s difficult for me to overlook the fact that she’s going to face more hardship. It makes me feel better that she ultimately was able to rise up from where she started, so high that she probably didn’t expect it, but I worry that suffering is doomed to be part of the black identity for years to come.
Overall, though, stories like this one makes me believe that things will be better for each generation to come after. I don’t think that we can say that black people, as a community, are where we should be at all. But I do think that, because of people like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and even Oprah, roads have been paved for young women like me. My only hope is that I’ll be able to do the same for the girls who come twenty years down the road.
I'm pretty dramatic. Meh.