I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” when I was fourteen or fifteen. I always hear that title in my head as if Maya Angelou were saying it with her own unmistakable rhythm: “I___KNOW___ why the caged_bird__SINGS”. It was the first book that engaged me enough to make me cry. It was one of the books that made me want to read. Maya Angelou’s early life could not have been more different from my cosy life in rural England, but still the words in this, her first autobiography, meant something to me, meant everything to me.
She grew up in the deep south, moved between homes, was raped when she was very young, had her first child at seventeen, went into prostitution, and later performing. She, of course, suffered the terrible racism of mid-century America. In the 1960s, she became a civil rights activist, writer and poet, wearing all her experiences for all to see and understand. Her honesty, her poetry, her rhythm, her pain spoke to anyone who had lived any kind of life, without denying the hardship (or lack of) of anyone else’s struggle, be it a struggle through a difficult life, or a struggle through a difficult day for a spoilt modern teenager.
Her poem, “And Still I Rise” is about how humans can come back from all difficulties, can fight hatred, always find a way to rise above. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear her read it. You can read it and see yourself in it whoever you are and whatever your challenges. “Does my sassiness upset you?” is my line, the one where I find me. When I read it, I still hear her smiling voice, her rhythm, her spirit that would not be quashed by bigotry and hardship, her kindness of spirit that could penetrate the darkness.