My first real awareness of Maya Angelou came when she read her poem, The Pulse of the Morning, at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural. As much as the words, it was her voice – deep, rumbling, confident – that struck me. I watched her on talk shows and while I gathered snippets about her life path, I never knew her story. And so, when it came time to choose a final inspiration for February, I turned to Maya’s first (of seven!) memoirs.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is so much more than autobiography – within its pages is a tale that is at once filled with pain and hope. A young girl, tossed from state to state and family member to family member, seeks to ground herself outside of her circumstances. Through rape, loneliness, and the rampant racism in 1920s and ’30s America, Maya somehow not only endures the pains thrust upon her, she seems to use her experiences as bricks, with which she lays an utterly unbreakable foundation for her life.
Just 4 when her parents marriage ended, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. These early years, despite the conditions of the black community, were stable and fairly secure. By the time she was 8 she was educated in business (from her grandmother’s store) and in the many inequities that went along with her skin color and gender. Momma (as she and her brother, Bailey, called their father’s mother) was stern and religious, yet provided a home in which she could, at least, trust.
It was 1935 when the children were unexpectedly sent to live with their mother in St. Louis. Vivian Baxter Johnson was a gorgeous woman, according to her daughter, who seemed to have everything – including a man in her life. When Freeman reaches out to the little girl, she is at first grateful and receptive. His attention quickly turns sinister, and when Maya was just 8 he molested her, the start of abuse that would ultimately turn to rape. When the crime was revealed, he was ejected from their lives. Jailed only for a day, Freeman was murdered four days later and Maya became convinced it was her fault. She went silent and wouldn’t talk again for four years.
It was during this period that she developed a love of books and literature. A favorite teacher introduced her to classic works and authors, including black women whose works spoke to the young girl. Maya would move back to her grandmother’s, then out West to live with each of her parents, before she was 16. There was tension in every household as she struggled to make sense of religion, friendships, and who and how to trust. Her experiences at church, in her father’s home, and in a variety of adventures revealed a young woman in constant flux as she worked to find her place while testing the boundaries of convention.
By the end of Caged Bird, Maya Angelou had learned to drive on an ill-fated road trip to Mexico with her father, earned a job as San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor, and given birth to a son after her first post-rape sexual encounter. She was not yet 17.
No one would have blamed her if she had given up at any point of her childhood, or allowed her pain to envelope her existence. And yet… she would go on to become almost a spokesperson for the ability of the human body, heart, and mind to survive nearly any tragedy.
That appears to be the common theme of my inspirers – their capacity to endure hardship, abuse, suffering, and so often turn their pain into something beautiful, something that changes the world. From scared, mistreated child to world-renowned Ph.D, author, activist, artist, and teacher, Maya Angelou’s life was proof of the spirit and strength that lies within our greatest people. Her unashamed telling of her story, her poems that describe both dignity and deepest pain, they are testaments to a species that despite its penchant for destruction, has also brought to the world things of the greatest beauty. She would go on to work with the world’s great minds – Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, James Earl Jones. She would win Tony nominations and too many awards to count and inspire others to seek and fulfill their largest potential.
We can be a weak species, often a cruel and unjust one. I believe that we rely on survivors like Maya Angelou to provide the hope and faith that with effort, we can overcome the demons and doubts of the world’s making and those of our own. To be like the flowers that burst through the ground each spring, like the mountains that withstand weather and time to rise tall into the sky.
In her story, I feel a call to action, a reminder that each of us brings skills, strengths, and gifts that must be shared in order to be real. And to pick up from our disappointments, big and small, so that like Maya Angelou, we survive for a purpose.