Maya Angelou’s autobiographical masterpiece I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a one-of-a-kind work of literature that is sure to grab a firm hold on readers’ hearts. It is a whirlwind of a story, leading readers through her encounters with racism, sexual abuse, teen homelessness, motherhood, and a slew of other trials and tribulations at an early age. After reading her story, it is easy to say that even just throughout her childhood, Angelou lived enough and endured enough for many lifetimes over.
She lived far more in the novel’s span of 13 years, Angelou’s life from ages three to 16, than we have in our nearly 20 years. As average, middle-class Midwesterners, born and raised, it is safe to say that my life is pretty boring. What this woman (at the time, young girl) experienced was quite a shock for us. This book was like a slap in the face to my privilege. We read about this woman’s – at times, horrifying – early years, and then we had the privilege to go to college to discuss it with other students. To put it simply, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is humbling.
A very young Angelou taught us some valuable lessons about what it means to be a ‘grown-up’. We would argue that at age eight she knew more than we do about being an adult. This is what we learned:
1. The circumstances of one’s life can change in an instant.
Though it seems as though life goes through good and bad stretches, Angelou shows us that nothing is certain. Her turbulent early years were characterized by constant surprises. After many years of zero contact with her parents (and even wishing they were dead at times), they suddenly emerged back into her and Bailey’s lives, which had, up to that point, been peaceful living with their grandmother. After the huge change of moving to live with her mother in St. Louis, Angelou endured the horrifying trauma of rape by her mother’s boyfriend. After another period of living with her grandmother, then a failed attempt at living with her mother in San Francisco, Angelou is sent to spend the summer with her unstable father and his girlfriend, who live in a trailer home. It’s not even necessary to mention the “Mexico” incident. To top it all off, she got pregnant with a boy she barely knew at the tender age of 16. The autobiography left us wondering what the next page might bring because it felt like there was always a new twist. People always say that reality is usually stranger than fiction, and that proved itself true in Angelou’s childhood: you really could not make this stuff up.
This lesson of constant ebbing and flowing that weaved throughout Angelou’s life was unsettling, and even more tough to swallow when applying it to one’s life. Sure, it is exciting to think about all the upcoming changes in my life: Where will I move after graduation? What job will I get? Will I get accepted to the grad school of my dreams? Unfortunately, life cannot always be just good changes; everybody has to endure some bad times, too. This fact of life is less than exciting for someone who has yet to really experience the “meat and potatoes” of life.
Knowing that there are bad times inevitably coming in life is kind of a downer, but Angelou’s constant positivity reminds me that good times accompany the bad; the world has to even itself out. Needless to say, Angelou’s life as chronicled in Caged Bird is proof enough that big changes can happen at any time, and that nothing is certain about the future (whether we like it or not).
2. Everything is about perspective.
So often it seems that everything that happens to us is either a terrible tragedy or a wonderful celebration. But this isn’t true for everyone. Angelou’s childhood was unique in that many events one might view as objectively positive or negative were different to her because of her unique perspective. After Angelou’s admittedly brief and otherwise irrelevant sexual encounter with who would become the father of her eventual baby, the reader is left feeling as though Angelou endures yet another hardship with her pregnancy. Yet this is not how she views it; it is instead a miracle that she revels in, something that she cherishes. Becoming a mother is one of the most uplifting moments in Angelou’s life because of the lens through which she views her life.
The issue of race is a big part of Angelou’s life in Stamps, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than feeling oppressed and inferior to white people, Angelou felt that she and other black people were more civilized. She viewed her grandmother as a strong and respected woman, and noted the difference in how the black citizens and white citizens treated her, and formed her perspective that is unique from the traditional.
There were many parts of Angelou’s story, a couple of which we just mentioned, that really took me aback. We had to stop and think about why a person might react the way they did. We found that it really is difficult to put yourself into another’s shoes when that person is so very different from oneself. We wanted to scream at Mama when she whipped Maya for saying ‘by the way’, but Mama interpreted her words as blasphemous. Even though child abuse is obviously never okay, it took use a long time to finally understand Mama. Though she may seem completely irrational at first, it takes contemplation of perspective to understand her beliefs and subsequent actions.
College has taught us how to have a wider perspective on life in general. Living and studying amongst people who have histories, cultures, and ideas varying all across the board has forced me to try to understand people’s’ positions before preemptively judging them. This is the only way to truly understand one another, which is essential for working with people different from oneself.
3. Parenting is a pretty weird thing.
It seems as though being a parent is just solving a problem. The problem being that a child cannot provide for themselves. The issue is that so often people treat the problem as though there’s only one solution, when in reality this is simply not the case. Parenting isn’t something you can put in a box; it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Angelou’s parents exhibit this perfectly.
Putting aside the fact that her grandmother filled more of a parental role for her developing years, Angelou’s mother and father have completely different approaches to parenting her and Bailey.
Vivian treats her children lavishly, always making sure they have what they need. But that is where her parenting ends. Angelou notes that she and Bailey always seemed to be in the peripherie of their mother’s lives. She sees no issues in leaving Angelou home with her live-in boyfriend, but immediately kicks him out when she senses something is wrong, i.e. Angelou’s rape by him. This apparent mothering behavior quickly disappears when she is unable to deal with the techniques Angelou employs to cope with the trauma.
Angelou’s father, on the other hand, is completely different as a parent. Firstly, he lives a dramatically different lifestyle. Though he speaks like a proper white man, Big Bailey seems to conform much less to the modern idea of being a parent than does Vivian. Aside from literally passing out drunk and making his preteen daughter drive him back from Mexico, he also lets his wife-to-be treat her terribly and allows his daughter to live on the streets instead of trying to give her a suitable home.
All of this should come with a disclaimer: We are not parents. We have no idea what this feels like nor all the complexities that go with having a child. However, it is in our future plans to be a parent one day, so it is interesting to note how others go about this function. Reading this book was also like a manual on what not to do when you have a kid: abandon it with your mom for ten years, go out and party and then make them your DD, let them drive underage, etc. Duly noted.
This work of creative nonfiction has been highly regarded since its inception, and with good reason. Angelou tells the tragic story of her childhood, marked by its sobering realism of what it meant to be an African American girl in the 1930s and ‘40s. She portrays the difficulties associated with the mixture of racial and social discrimination experienced by a southern black people during this time period, and touches on many sensitive issues, such as the relationships between parents and children, child abuse, and the search for one’s own path in life.
Though her childhood years are barely relatable at all to that of our privileged, middle-class lifestyle growing up in Missouri, she still managed to invoke in us thoughts of what it really means to “come of age”. Angelou never really had the luxury of just being a kid; she worked from the time she could walk and went on doing so until she had a child of her own to take care of. It seems as though she skipped the in-between, what people romanticize as being some of the best years: childhood. We are working and going to school and doing other adult things like paying bills, but at heart I am still like a child, trying to figure things out. By 16, Angelou seemed to be more of an adult than I am as a sophomore in college. Her thoughts and memories transcribed in this autobiography may have been from a child, yet they taught us essential lessons about growing up and entering adulthood.