Her most celebrated writings have been labeled autobiographical fiction. It is hard, though, to understand the origin of the clarity with which persons not present in the day-to-day development of what would later be her biography could have possibly thought it is fiction she was describing, instead of just simple daily occurrences.
Maya Angelou, born (1928) as Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in a time when black people were predominantly considered mere possessions of the “powhitetrash”, developed to be one of the world’s most renowned writers and activists of our time. Her career spanned no less than five decades, starting as a singer/dancer, continuing as a journalist/civil rights activist, and finally cementing itself into that of a writer and poet. During her time as a civil rights activist, she worked closely together with the nationalist leaders and human rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., until their assassinations in 1964 and 1968, respectively. Around the same period, at the encouragement of the novelist James Baldwin, Angelou began the work on the first and most acclaimed of her seven autobiographical novels.
The book recalls her childhood experiences while growing up in rural Arkansas, in the small town of Stamps, where her grandmother, together with her incapacitated uncle Willie, were running a general merchandise store that her grandmother (fondly called Momma) had established some 25 years earlier. Following their parents’ divorce, Marguerite (often called the affectionate short name of Rittie) and her one-year older brother Bailey were sent off to live with their grandmother. While the town of Stamps seemed to be at the forefront of the racial segregation, young Rittie enjoyed a loving, though fearful childhood. Raised by a strict, religious, and church-going grandmother, both Maya and her brother turned to books for learning, development, and comfort.
In those early years, in the small but acutely poignant world of childhood, Maya’s world is full of impressive, though at times peculiar, characters: the ugly and fat reverend Howard Thomas, who “laughed like a hog with the colic”, and whom the children disliked because of his self-centeredness (not bothering to remember their names and eating the “biggest, brownest and best part of the chicken at every Sunday meal”); the flamboyant and overzealous Sister Monroe, who displayed her righteousness during all the Sunday morning preaches she could attend, invariably causing the most ridiculous and entertaining uproar (“Sister’s Monroe fuse was already lit, and she sizzled somewhere to the right behind me. […] Just as the elder [i.e. reverend Thomas] opened his mouth, pink tongue waving, and said ‘Great God of Mount Nebo’, Sister Monroe hit him on the back of his head with her purse. Twice. Before he could bring his lips together, his teeth fell, no, actually his teeth jumped, out of his mouth”); the unrelenting and ever-present Momma, a miraculous being who “could be in two places at the same time”, but more importantly, who was the first to teach little Maya the power of holding one’s ground in an unfair, treacherous and agonising world. However loving her childhood has been, Maya’s acute self-awareness ever since a young age seems to strongly indicate her the place she has in the world or, rather, the place others have decided for her and which she will fight against throughout her entire life (“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult”).
At eight years old, Maya and her brother Bailey, who was nine, were taken by their father away from Stamps and brought to live with their mother Vivian Baxter in the city of St. Louis. Due to their mixed racial provenience and fair skin tone, the family members of Maya’s mother had the capacity to pass for white and some integrated into the local German community. Despite the theoretical educational and development possibilities a city like St. Louis could have offered to growing Maya, it was there that she underwent the worst experience of her childhood. One that probably followed her throughout her life, long after she officially recovered from it: being raped by her mother’s fiance and having to carry the perceived responsibility of his death (after he escaped the trial raised against him, members of Vivian’s family had him killed as a payment measure for his acts). After this event, Maya and Bailey returned to Stamps and its austere but loving environment, where it took her the better part of two years, and her grandmother’s deep and unwavering love, to recover her speech. To this end, the lovely and well-read Mrs. Flowers, a friend of Momma’s and “one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, […] the measure of what a human being can be”, offered significant help by inviting little and insignificant Marguerite at her house, serving cookies specially baked for her, and ice and lemonade on an ordinary day, but most importantly, by lending her books, teaching her, and imbuing the young and scared girl with meaning (“Your 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” and “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson”). This was the beginning of a new time, a time of self-development and study, during which both Maya and Bailey advanced well beyond what the local educational system could offer them in the segregated South. Time for another trip, at thirteen, to the de-segregated California where Maya’s mother had moved in the meantime. During her stay at her mother’s, Maya delved into the first signs of womanhood and all the agonising uncertainties that comes with it, as well as cemented her reverence, admiration and respect for her mother’s beauty, positive ingeniosity in the face of whatever problem came her way. Switching homes to her father’s trailer turns out to be yet another character-building experience: a budding teenager totally unfamiliar with cars and how to operate them, nevertheless having to drive her father’s car back from Mexico during one of his alcohol-infused visits; defending her mother in the face of her father’s lover and realising, on a deeper level, the more subtle, fragile and ever-crumbling fabric of the world; running away and living in a car junk yard for a month (and finally learning how to drive). Throughout all of these tumultuous experiences, and despite the occasional waverings, Maya finds solace in books and knowledge, managing to graduate school two years ahead of schedule at a high academic level, a proof of her stellar education. These achievements are a testament to both the education she received from her grandmother and her relentlessness, as well as her own personal fabric as a human being. It is precisely this trait of character, the inherited relentlessness and endurance, the unending perseverance, that helped her be the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco.
It is this same endurance and perseverance that changed her, from the scared and shy child that she started as, into the bold, powerful, and liberal young adult and mother she becomes And, later on, into the first female inaugural poet in the US presidential history, reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for president Bill Clinton’s inauguration; into a Nobel prize laureate for poetry; and into a civilian awarded with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom by president Barack Obama, an award distinguished with the highest civilian honour in the United States.
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.
Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.
The bright hours when the young rebelled against the descending sun had to give way to twenty-four-hour periods called “days” that were named as well as numbered.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature, while, at the same time she is being caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power.
The fact that the adult American 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.”