Banned Books, biography, Black Women, Black women's narratives, Book Review, censorship, Dead Poet's Society, Elmo Saves Christmas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Language, Literature, Maya Angelou, memoir, Novel, Poetry, race, Rape, Sesame Street, Sexuality, Shadows in the Sun, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, trauma, Weldon Parish, Writers, Writing
The first story Maya Angelou ever told me was how Elmo saved Christmas. My little sister was part of the Elmo generation, I was more of a Cookie Monster guy myself, and so when the special came out on VHS my parents had to buy it to add to their still impressive if outdated collection of Christmas Specials. To this day we’ve never updated, and so the brick VHS tape of Elmo and Lightning the reindeer remains part of the Canon of the Smith Family Christmas. Being a young kid I asked who the elderly lady was who was narrating and Mom, or Dad, told me her name was Maya Angelou and that she was a poet.
That was it, and life went on.
Maya Angelou would return to my attention in my Junior year of high school when my teacher gave us a “recommended list” of books to read before the AP test. These books exemplified the standards of that bullshit exam, but while many of my friends and classmates simply threw the handout away immediately I became entranced. Lists are always a challenge and to this day I still have my near shattered copy of that list, with several of the titles of novels highlighted in lapis blue. Maya Angelou was on the list, and the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would haunt me through the years. I wanted to read it desperately but no book store ever seemed to carry it, and when I found out the book was often banned this only fueled the flame.
Despite this, life went on.
Maya Angelou died while I was on my honeymoon. May 28, 2014. I remember driving home, actually my wife was driving us home I wasn’t allowed to drive her car, and while we were enjoying the “Continental Breakfast” I spotting her face on a newspaper in the hotel, or was it motel, those eight hour drives are all a blur honestly, and I picked it up recognizing the face I had watched time and time again on the Elmo Saves Christmas special. I read the article, mourning a woman I had never met, had never read, and known of only through reputation and references.
But, again, life went on.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings seemed like a songbird that lands near your feet and then flutters away in a panic when you try to touch it. Angelou’s book constantly escaped me until one of my weekly “Coffee with Jammer” meetings with a friend, I think it was my Mom actually but she’s a friend too, that I finally found a paperback copy of the book. A black bird soars up from an unseen unknown territory while a yellow sun paints the world four different shades of yellow-orange. I picked up the book, and I admit this to my great shame, part of me wondered if maybe I shouldn’t wait on it and simply buy something else. My mother encouraged me to buy it though, and like so many of the amazingly selfless actions she’s made in her life, actually bought it for me. The book was finally mine, but I had grad school and cats and work to worry about, and a novel by Faulkner which wasn’t going to finish itself and so I passed on the book to Mom who started it first. I admit this part with great shame however, I eventually took the book back from her because that songbird had sung for too long.
Reading just the first few pages I recognized Angelou as a voice I had heard only a few times in my life. She describes in the opening passage dressing up for church:
Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must have been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern Accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil. (5).
On the next page she offers a condenses sentiment:
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens her throat. (6).
It’d be fair to say, and I’ve said it before in previous articles, that the voices of African American women tend to be shunned or silenced when it comes to the American Literary Canon. The best example being that I couldn’t read or be taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, however writers like Virginia Wolfe and Jane Austen were free game. I did manage to read Their Eyes Were Watching God as part of the curriculum and I’ll forever thank Ms. Wilson for giving me that wonderful book, but something that has bothered me about my education, and by extension the education of millions of American students, is the pronounced lack of “minority” voices in the texts we read. Part of this is simply the reality facing many teachers. By the time a person leaves High School they’re supposed to have read at least a few of the “classics” so that they can be prepared as citizens. This would not be so much of a problem were it not for the fact that American literary products are steadily diminished by curriculums and British authors, who typically tend to be white, receive favor or precedence by teachers and administrators. Growing up in a predominantly white environment, and going to a mostly white school also tended to keep me in a bubble where the realities of black people were either nonexistent, or else an abstract cartoon painted harshly by conservative voices and pathetically by liberal voices.
Reading Maya Angelou cuts through everything because she doesn’t spare her reader any of her pain, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a song of pain. The novel/memoir is about her growing up in a small southern town where her family operates the only negro owned general store, dealing with her conflicted identity as black rather than white, and learning the rhythms being black in the South. Midway through the book however her mother returns for Angelou and her brother Bailey and they all move to California where her mother works as a singer and actress. Her boyfriend, a man by the name of Mr. Burnham watches over the children while their mother is at work, however Burnham assumes a malevolent significance in Angelou’s life for the novel describes the rape she suffered by him. Burnham is eventually found out, but the remainder of the novel deals with Angelou overcoming this trauma and deciding she will never speak again.
Angelou accounts this decision shortly after the trial that has seen Mr. Burnham free but eventually killed by the community:
I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like black fat slugs that only pretended.
I had to stop talking.
I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. (85-6).
The rape in question is the predominant reason I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often banned from school reading lists, and on some level I understand this. Rape as a topic is not fun to discuss, let alone even think about, and teenagers existing in the environments they do many teachers likely keep a book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings off the list because it describes and presents the act so plainly and vividly. I’d like to think that this is the main reason why the book has been banned, but the problem is stories like The Fall of the House of Usher and To Kill a Mockingbird both deal frankly with the topic of rape and those books, apart from being authored by white writers, are required reading in schools. As so often happens the reasons for lifting a book from course curriculum comes not from teachers who are just trying to introduce students to topic and issues about the real world in the safe environment of the classroom, it’s the parents who are terrified that their child will be exposed to shocking or harmful material, most of it material they have already learned about through television.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most banned books in America, falling behind Captain Underpants, and Maya Angelou herself has been one of the most banned authors falling into the top 10 list of banned authors over the last two decades at least. Part of this is the frank presentation of rape, however it should be noted that it has also been banned for the frank presentations of sexuality, and while this is never on the list, for the honest presentation of the thoughts and feelings of many young black women.
The first quote I provided should demonstrate that Angelou’s book tackles the issue of the self-esteem problems she suffered from as a young woman, and while this was certainly because of her body type, it was clear she had compartmentalized the idea that white skin, or at least paler tones, were not only more attractive, but truly beautiful. A few years back I worked alongside a woman who confessed to me that she received a lot of flak from other black women because of her complexion. She had what is sometimes referred to as Honeydew skin tone, where the individual is African American, but their skin appears lighter. This is in itself is not a problem for skin tone is varied and can assume, literally, millions of different varieties. The reason for her pain was an embedded Eurocentrism that exists within the black community that lighter skinned women are perceived as more attractive than darker skinned women. This was another one of those little realities that escaped me because as a white man I don’t really think too much about skin tone and how important it is, or the way it can effect they way you live your life.
Angelou touches upon this later in the novel when she says:
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the Adult Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance. (268).
At this point the reader may interject and ask if the book is one long examination of the troubles of African American women? There’s nothing wrong with that, but I keep calling it a novel. How do you form a novel around mundane cultural and racial problems? This is a fair point and I realize I may be focusing on the negatives more than I should.
Maya Angelou was a poet first, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates that in the way she describes how important language became to her. After she was raped and Mr. Burnham met his fate Angelou sequestered herself in her own mind, refusing to talk to anyone but her brother until she encounters a woman named Mrs. Flowers who teaches her the value of language. Mrs. Flowers says:
“Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need tome to think about it.
“You grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed to valid and poetic. (96).
It’s passages like this that abound through the novel/memoir that remind the reader of the power of Angelou’s narrative and life and what role it plays in literature. Many people will never read Angelou’s work and the tragedy of that is not just the missed chance to read a wonderful story about overcoming pain and trauma, the real tragedy shall be that the reader will miss the opportunity to see how important the work of a writer really is. Writer’s do more than simply connect pretty words together for the sake of making them pretty, and Weldon Parish, Harvey Keitel’s character in film Shadows in the Sun, expresses the sentiment far better than I could.
Weldon Parish: Anyone can use words. It’s called talking. But writers arrange them in a way so that they take on a beauty in their form.
Angelou’s book is a song dedicated to a life and existence that was defined by its time and place. Whether she’s describing her and her brother Bailey hiding her uncle under a pile of onions from the Klan who never show up, or else describing the joy her and her community felt when Joe Louis became the first black Heavyweight boxing champion, Angelou pours her soul into her language so that these moments become more than impressions of her life, they become music sung by the deepest part of her being to the person she was and the people she’s a part of. This melody and song can only exist through language and by singing it the way she does the reader is left with more than just an autobiography.
Looking near the end of the book there’s one last passage worth observing here. It’s her own reflection after deciding she will find a boy, have sex, and finally become fulfilled as an individual. After the sex which is awkward and meaningless she realizes that nothing has actually changed:
At home I reviewed my failure and tried to evaluate my new position. I had had a man. I had been had. I not only didn’t enjoy it, but my normalcy was still a question.
What happened to the moonlight-on-the-prairie feeling? Was there something so wrong with me that I couldn’t share a sensation that made poets gush out rhyme after that made Richard Arlen brave the Arctic wastes and Veronica Lake betray the entire free world? (278-9).
On one hand this passage is important because it demonstrates a fact that often gets missed by the narratives that reach young men which is that young women don’t always find satisfaction in the loss of their virginity. Some women in fact feel that the act leaves them dissatisfied and nothing has in fact actually happened. This passage also reveals an important fact connected to the very titles. Maya Angelou is always detailing, discussing, describing, and deconstructing her experience as a young woman of color, as a young woman, and simply as an individual and the impression that’s left is that she is dissatisfied. She feels often that she is trapped or contained and that little or anything will ever truly free her from this feeling, and looking at it from afar this is a beautiful expression worth reading.
Those of us living in this impersonal Pseudo-Modern age are often trapped in the various avatars and masks that can in fact become a cage. Rather than mourn this lack of freedom Angelou find hope and freedom in poetry which is ultimately song. If I can quote Dead Poet’s Society:
John Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.
Maya Angelou lived with passion and made it her life’s work. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not just an autobiography, it’s a poetic song dedicated to what language can do for one soul caught in a self-constructed cage. In life there will be non-stop attacks on individual’s passions, and it falls upon them to fight through it.
Birds may sing because they’re trapped in cages, but ultimately music and language transcends such petty limitations and bird songs fly ever upward.
I’ve included links to a few articles about the banning of Maya Angelou’s books and works. Enjoy: