Sunday, November 27, 2005

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Hmmm…a memoir, I kept saying. Why would this be on the list of American Comedies? Let me rephrase that: A memoir in which the author tells the very upsetting story of her molestation by a step-father—as well as her repeated abandonment by her parents and other events…how can that be a comedy. A few parts were funny, and by that I mean that I might have smiled as I turned a page once or twice, but even though I could not put down the book for the two days it took me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I found it hard to judge the book as a comedy. Viewed broadly, from a literary seat at roughly the height of a tennis chair umpire, I suppose it is accurate to call Angelou’s book a comedy in the way the ancient Greek plays where the couples that have rotten beginnings and end up married are called comedies. Similarly, Angelou, who suffers agonies the Greeks never thought of mentioning, ends up with a baby son (just never mind that no one would sleep with her, so she decided to deny her lesbianism—and who knows what about her transgenderism—and get the cutest boy in the neighborhood to do her [not such a bad plan], but then she lucked out and got pregnant first try). So she’s stuck with raising him on her own. I guess I’m Euro-centric in assuming that’s not such a happy ending. In WASP-ville, that’s a one-way ticket to permanent shame-ville, and I could cite you ten examples right now of some shamed WASPs who headed directly to trailer-ville with their out-of-wedlock children. But no one asked me.

Mostly, I’m being silly there, because it truly is none of my business to discuss, but the notion of being outside my culture to discuss child-rearing practices, but the ability to observe one’s culture—as well as what’s outside it—is one of the themes of Angelou’s book. The story of her life truly does deserve to be memorialized. Her first memory is being put, at the age of three, with her four-year-old brother on a train from California to Arkansas with a note pinned on their shoulder about where they were going. The story says so much that she didn’t have to say. Having just taken a train trip, I am astonished at the irresponsibility of the people who did that….and how they could have let two such tiny children out of their sight. Not to mention how the little children managed to feed themselves, much less stay out of harm’s way (the train wheels, diapers, etc….). How terrifying for them! I wonder later at the various other abandonments that occurred to Angelou along the way, the various places and ways where people let her down. The only “symptom” of such brutality that she reports is that she stops talking for a while, which at the time when she does it (after she is raped) seems like a perfectly adaptive response. Indeed, the book is entirely—and seemingly without her knowing it—a testament to her strength of will, to the depth of her character.

How does she do it? How was Angelou strong in the face of disaster after disaster, which to many other lesser human beings would have been extremely destructive and might ultimately have resulted in the annihilation of the personality? I think in part the tremendous strength of her grandmother, who at least partly raised her, was very helpful as a type of stability. Angelou’s belief is strong in the African-American female of every variety as a source of strength. In the end, she argues:
The fact that the adult American Negro [sic] 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. (273)

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