I don’t often re-read books, but I felt the Gods were really telling me that I had to revisit Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Firstly, Britain’s hapless Tory Education Minister Michael Gove announced his plans for new English curriculum set texts. The Department for Education guidance to exam boards stated “Students should study a range of high-quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include: at least one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. All works should have been originally written in English.” With teachers and pupils hard-pressed for time and operating within an intensive results-driven culture, which means they inevitably have not time to do anything but what is ‘on the exam’, this change means that popular modern American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men will be dropped from syllabuses. Gove, who has also recently talked about the need to teach our students about “British values” whatever that means, is making a value judgement about what young people should be reading and why. In my experience as a teacher, it is, sadly, hard enough to enthuse teenagers about books without making the process even more difficult. Yes, Steinbeck and Harper Lee are studied by a majority of our pupils and we should be encouraging them to read more widely but the reason they have been chosen by teachers is that their themes speak to the youth of 21st Century in a way that George Eliot’s Middlemarch never can. My GCSE set text was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. God only knows what Gove thinks of that. Not only is it American, it is written by a Black American. And a woman at that! I was already an avid reader, yet it still had a profound effect on me.
Then, with the English literature debate still rumbling on, Maya Angelou died. I was sad, but at 86 years old she had clearly had a ‘good innings’ and… what a life! So it was decided, I needed to re-read IKWTCBS and I also intend to read Mom & Me & Mom as recommended by Claire at Word by Word blog.
IKWTCBS is the first volume of Maya Angelou’s memoirs. It tells the story of her childhood and teenage years. Sent, along with her beloved brother Bailey, on a train to live with her paternal Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya’s early years are difficult. She has a negative self-image, no doubt springing from feelings of rejection by her mother, and never really fits in. Whilst her family are relatively affluent, running the local Store (always spelt with a capital S) she sees poverty all around her and experiences the sharp end of Deep South segregation and racism. Briefly sent back to live with her mother in St Louis she experiences sexual abuse which propels her into selective mutism. Its only when, back in Stamps, a local refined, educated Black woman (a real rarity) singles her out and teaches her the beauty of how literature should be read aloud that she begins to speak again. Eventually she goes to California to live with her mother once again and her teenage years are by no means plain sailing, yet she is able to start to come to terms with identity and find some sort of inner-peace and purpose.
Because IKWTCBS is so beautifully written, every page groans with perfect metaphors and sensual descriptions of food or place or people, its hard-hitting themes and messages almost wash over you. It is Maya’s adult voice, usually appearing at the end of a chapter, which reminds you of the sexism and patriarchy, the racism, the violence, the cruelty, the role of religion and family, the pain and the humour which overshadowed her formative years. It is summed up by the last but one paragraph at the end of chapter 34,
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all these 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.
Its overall message, though, is one of triumph over all this adversity. A message also found in her poetry… And Still I Rise for example. A message to the downtrodden which our current government no doubt wants suppressed.