Ah, I remember reading this book in secondary school—but, of course, it didn’t quite resonate with me then in the way it does today, through the eyes of an adult who has experienced life and can now appreciate the essence of the great Maya Angelou’s writing. Her recollection of how her child innocence was stolen from her is something so many people—espeically women—can unfortunately relate to. It is a story of sadness, triumph, and freedom—a story of racism and rape, a story of surviving and overcoming, a story of trauma and strength.
The painful sense of being unwanted haunts Angelou’s early childhood—when Maya is three and her brother Bailey four, they are sent to the “musty little town” of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to “To whom it may concern,” dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their “calamitous marriage.” Living with their grandmother, “Momma”, who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets —nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother’s lover, Mr. Freeman (“a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart”). After Freeman is murdered, Maya stops speaking, frightened of words.
The book tastefully addresses issues of molestation, rape, racism. But it does so within the context of the trials and tribulations of growing up as well. The book presents things in a direct and extremely vivid fashion, but it is not garishly or needlessly graphic. These are issues that need to be addressed and talked about with adolescents. In fact, earlier generations could have certainly benefited from open discussion about such matters—and I can relate to this, as in many African homes, family rape is taboo to speak about and is often hidden.
Overall, this is a raw and honest account, eloquently expressed. But despite the eloquence, reading it can weigh heavy on the soul. If you do not feel the need to pause and take a deep breath sometimes before starting another page, you would not be human. It certainly is not a “light” read, though it is absolutely a necessary one.
Reading this account in modern times, what’s most startling is just how condoned racial segregation was. It’s one thing to read about it in history books—it’s another to read a direct account told through the eyes of a little girl who suffered, in so many ways, as a result. Racism seems so entrenched in culture that it is startling that any progress could be made from such a point. What’s more: this appalling account of ignorance and prejudice is surprisingly recent.
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” This is a direct quote from Angelou, and it sums up beautifully exactly what she did with this beloved book. It is a deeply powerful, often-assigned, and endlessly acclaimed autobiography not because of its words, but because of the humanity behind them.
I’ll leave you with this:
“The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky”
Find your copy here xx
Watch for more must-pack books and reviews soon.