“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) by Maya Angelou is her coming of age story. It is probably the single best book about what it was like to grow up black in the American South in the days of Jim Crow.
It covers her first 17 years. It is the first of six books about her life. It is not like Tolkien where you feel like you are there in the moment, but more like your own memories and dreams, feeling more like something you once lived.
There is no plot because life has no plot. Each chapter tells about some event from her early life. Some of her language seems a bit much, but if you go with it it works beautifully.
She grew up in the small country town of Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s and in the big city of San Francisco, California in the early 1940s. At age eight (1936) she lived for six months in St Louis, Missouri, which she rightly compares to hell.
I first read this book ages ago. Reading it again I see that I remembered little of the action beyond the sex parts, but plenty of its images remained in my head:
- Her two years of silence after she was raped at age eight because of her fear of the power of words
- Her three uncles as dangerous characters who defend the family’s honour
- People listening to the Joe Louis fight on the radio
- The bridge that separates the white part of town from the black part
- How poor whites, despite their lack of money, education and even good manners, thought they were better than blacks
I was surprised to find that some images, which I thought were from some forgotten film, came from this book. But come to think of it, they are not the sort of images Hollywood puts out:
- A high school with no grass
- The radio being turned up while a young girl is raped
- Driving her drunk father back from Mexico
- San Francisco during the early 1940s, with shops and apartments left empty by the Japanese American internment
The segregation in Stamps was so profound that as a child she had little first-hand experience of whites, most of it not good:
- A white woman she worked for briefly as a maid shortens her name from Marguerite (her birth name) to Mary without even asking.
- A white dentist, whom her grandmother saved from ruin during the darkest days of the Depression, turns her away saying , “I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”
- Some poor white girls come up to her grandmother and start mocking her in public. They call her by her first name. To top it off one of them stands on her hands, letting her dress fall to show her pubic hair. Her grandmother stands there saying nothing. When they leave she says her goodbye to each one respectfully.