Those who read it now probably can’t quite imagine how fresh and powerful it was at that time. In the interim, coming-of-age memoirs by women—including by black or other minority women—have become far more commonplace, as have descriptions of childhood sexual abuse. Those things were part of Angelou’s book back in a time when they were unusual to read about, and that was arresting. But a lot of other things about her book remain extraordinary, and they are the reason I read it and found it memorable.
The first is the power of her unique and lyric voice, which was (and remains) utterly arresting and utterly engaging. The reader is drawn at once into the world of Angelou’s childhood, where black children are sent on trains halfway across the country with notes pinned on their clothing as to where they’re going, and met by grandmothers who take them in and raise them with strength and religion and firmness in a world that is entirely black, including the schools and the teachers. The portrait in the book of Angelou’s grandmother Annie Henderson is one of the great ones of memoir. Nor is it sugar-coated and touchy-feely; her grandmother was deeply loving but extremely formidable.
The rape that occurs later, at the hands of Angelou’s mother’s live-in boyfriend when 8-year-old Maya and her brother have been sent back to St. Louis to live with her, is heartbreakingly rendered. Described from the child’s viewpoint, it somehow manages to depict something that has rarely been conveyed so well: how the child’s starvation for paternal affection can set up the neediness that makes him/her vulnerable, how wily and then how brutal the rapist can be, and how a sensitive child might react. In Angelou’s case, when her uncles took revenge and murdered the rapist, she felt that her talking about the rape had caused his death, and so she decided to stop talking entirely:
“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …”
It took a long time for Angelou to find her voice again—five years of silence. Initially she was sent back to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her grandmother in a more stable environment, and that helped a bit. But it was literature and a wonderful teacher that convinced her to return to the world and its people.
Angelou wrote many more memoirs besides Caged, and over the years I’ve read quite a few of them. They’re of interest to anyone interested in Angelou’s life, and they constitute a story of overcoming great odds. But none of them even remotely touches the heights of her first book. I’ve often thought that many writers have one book in them that they must write, are driven to write, and that for Angelou that book was Caged. The rest was commentary.
The same for her poems, which I don’t much care for. But Caged was a masterpiece when it was first written. I don’t know how it holds up today because I haven’t read it in many years. But I bet it holds up just fine.
Angelou gained fame as a writer, but she was not only a writer. If you read about her life you may be struck, as I’ve been for years, by how varied and accomplished it was. Hers was a life lived fully. Of how many people can you say that?
RIP, Maya Angelou.
[NOTE: There’s not all that much in Angelou’s obits or even her Wiki entry about her politics. She was very active in the civil rights movement as a young woman, and Wiki mentions an early pro-Castro period, but it is my impression (including the indications in this article, as well) that she was a liberal Democrat. She seems to have been especially close to the Clintons, and supported Hillary’s bid over Obama’s in 2008. Her ties to Arkansas probably at least partially explain that fact.)