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Remembering the African-American writer Maya Angelou

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Wong Soak Koon reflects on Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

It is almost two years since Maya Angelou, the African American writer, passed away in May 2014 after a life lived with resilience, courage, flair and style.

Her chequered life-experiences saw her take on many roles which would have taken others a few lifetimes to live out. The first black woman conductor on the San Franciso tramlines, a nightclub dancer, a journalist and a fry cook, she also co-ordinated a Southern Baptist Leadership conference with Dr Martin Luther King.

Yet it is often through her poems, autobiographies and essays that we know her. The author of seven volumes of autobiograhy, arguably the best known being I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, three books of essays, several volumes of poetry, Maya Angelou is also credited with a list of screenplays for TV and films.

For those of us concerned with social justice and equality for all regardless of gender, race, disabilities, religious or poitical affiliations, her life and work offer us much to reflect upon.

Fragile humanity

Her first autobiographical volume, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings recalls a childhood marked by familial dysfunctions and racial discrimination. The protective care of her grandmother, however, balances painful memories of oppression and sexual violation with recollections of nurturance and maternal protection. Mrs Annie Johnson, her grandmother, engendered a sense of agency and potential.

Angelou’s first volume of memoirs is not darkly infused with the surreal horror, the bitter despair which we do find in other African-American life narratives or in fiction created from lived experiences and ancestral oral tales. Some readers may even call Maya Angelou “sentimental”. For some, this kind of writing, more acceptable to the white liberal sensibility, is problematic, even appropriable.

I prefer to read her memoir as a challenging effort at restraint and reconciliation. Not at all a maudlin, romantic cop-out, the first volume of her memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an affirmation of an elusive, fleeting balance as good, bad, kind, cruel, ugly and beautiful flow into the stream of her early life experiences.

We are encouraged to think beyond binaries and stereotypes when encountering all kinds of human behaviour. She would very likely concur with her friend, James Baldwin, another seminal African-American writer, when he reminds us that, “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and celebrate what is constant – birth, struggle, and death are constant and so is love”.

The memoir details extreme life circumstances of the African-Americans without defining them only via the dehumanising scars of racial oppression. Instead, it returns to them a fragile humanity retained under hardship and duress.

Deeper meanings of the ‘political’

Quite often, we make the mistake of equating the quiet, daily struggles for survival of those living in the midst of deeply entrenched inequality as apolitical. Thus, after each election in Malaysia, we lambast our rural citizenry for their blind acceptance of the statusquo.

In Angelou’s portrait of her grandmother, Annie Johnson, deeper meanings of the “political” may be found. Not an agitator for rights, she does not join any movement to better the lot of black Americans.

Yet in rural Stamps, Arkansas, she creates a “refuge” for the disenfranchised in her community, for example, the cotton pickers whose backbreaking work scars their hands with deep cuts and wounds their spirit with hopelessness. For them, the store she runs provides a sense of “belonging” which is the seed of political awareness.

Angelou describes this space as an inscription of community: “Then she had the store built in the heart of the Negro area. Over the years it became the lay center of activities in town”.

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Using her skill in remembering atmosphere, Angelou evokes those mornings during the cotton picking season when the pickers gather:

“In those tender mornings the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting and bragging”; the voices of the pickers rang with a sense of purpose even if this is simply to boast about who could pick more cotton.

“The lamplight in the Store gave a soft make-believe feeling to our world”, perhaps the fleeting feeling that one can be in charge of one’s life when one pays for “two cans of sardines” and “a hunk of cheese”.

Purchasing power, which many a bougeois activist may take for granted, is a different matter for others who see it as linked to a bit of hard-met pride and dignity. Is this relief mere escapism? Even so, it made the long, punishing days in the field more tenable.

Survival strategies


The politics of daily survival energises Angelou’s grandmother, Annie Johnson (Momma to her grandchildren). Even during the Depression, she did not go on relief because the Store sustained her, the two grandchildren, Maya and Bailey, and her crippled son, Uncle William.

In an essay titled “New Directions”, Angelou pays tribute to her grandmother’s survival strategies. After leaving a marriage grown loveless, her grandmother started her own food business, first on a very small scale.

It seems to me that such foodways deserve more attention as an act of empowerment which women confer on themselves, carving out an economic independence which society denies them because of racial and gender bias.

Her hot meat pies, redolent of the appetising smells of home cooking “never disppointed her customers” (workers of different races at the cotton gin and lumber mill). And “when she felt certain that the workers had become dependent on her, she built a stall between the two hives of industry and let the men run to her for their lunchtime provisions”.

In the years that followed this humble start, the stall grew into the Store. Food has become a matter not only of economics but of a kind of border crossing as non-African Americans savoured the pies.

In many moments of testing, both from natural disasters and man-made conflict, the homeliness of food preparation does evoke security and the familiar. A tornado threatens outside while in the Store “pots rattled in the kitchen where Momma was frying corn cakes to go with the vegetable soup for supper, and the homey sounds and scents cushioned” Maya Angelou as she enjoys “the family warmth of our pot-bellied stove”.

Echoes in Malaysian short stories

In our own Malaysian short stories, for example, in the work of Fatimah Busu and Azizi Hj Abdullah, the survival strategies of women are similarly highlighted. In her tales with a rural Kelantanese setting, Fatimah details how, in times of privation, due to drought, floods or war, such as during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, women sustained life through their knowledge of food sources only available to the skilled forager.

My introduction to the collection of Malaysian short stories, In The Shadows of The Palm, comments on two stories which thematise women’s strength.

In Azizi Hj Abdullah’s The Price of Dignity, the woman protagonist, Cah, I see as fighting to keep larger economic forces, who may be acting in collusion with the state, from seizing her paddy fields for the purpose of tiger-prawn farming. In Fatimah Busu’s A Time Once Past, Khadijah is painted as a woman who keeps life going during the Japanese Occupation.

I conclude that “the histories of battles, treaties and the actions of public figures should not obscure the equally important chronicles of home, hearth and the quotidian”. Like Angelou’s grandmother, these women characters are not overtly political.

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Angelou puts it this way, if her grandmother “had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she was a realist. Didn’t she stand up to ‘them’ year after year? Wasn’t she the only Negro woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs?”

Like the defiant woman protagonist, Cah, in Azizi’s story, Angelou’s grandma also fights for her rights. By the force of her powerful presence, she shames the white dentist who refuses to treat her granddaughter even though the little girl is clearly in great pain from a throbbing tooth.

Her restraint and dignity remain intact when a group of white kids come to the Store to cause trouble with one of them lifting up her skirts to humiliate the old woman. This is the opposite of an Uncle Tom attitude of compliance and apology, and it is in this kind of quiet resilience that one may find the seedbed of that political will which later generations of educated African Americans would demonstrate.

Yet Angelou’s memories of her grandmother are balanced and unsentimental. Mrs Annie Johnson’s agency is limited to Stamps, where she is respected among the black community and held in awe even among some of the whites.

In Los Angeles, to which she brings the children so that they can be with their mother, she is like a fish out of water. The church there is her mainstay and Angelou tells us that her grandmother, understandably, looked for “carbon copies of herself”. The borders of her power are thus circumscribed; she has little desire to try uncharted waters or explore new “territories” of empowerment.

Masochism and racism

The Church itself back in Stamps is painted without sentimentality. A rallying force for the black community, it is, nonetheless, seen by Angelou as engendering a kind of masochism in some believers. Dog-tired from a long day of cotton picking, the pickers still say, “We going home and get cleaned up to go to the revival meeting.”

The mature memoir writer records her own childhood observation of this behaviour: “Go to church in that cloud of weariness?… The thought came to me that my people may be a race of masochists and not only was it our fate to live the poorest, roughest life but that we liked it like that”.

The horror of racial hatred cannot be easily explained away, and Angelou’s older brother saw, on one traumatic evening, how a dead black man, a victim of violence in life and in death, was treated as if he were no more than garbage.

He saw how the body was fished out of the pond and one white man simply turned the man over with his foot, grinned and said, “My, he had no color at all.”

Bailey asks, “Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”

Angelou, as the mature memoir-writer looking back notes that, for this dead black man, the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery has no resonance.

Maya Angelou’s affirmation of Christian belief is therefore never simply superficial or shallow even if she values how Momma’s Christianity keeps the old woman strong thus empowering her to shelter her two grandchidren as best she could in a world where the terrors of racism can intrude into one’s home any moment.

There is another woman figure in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings who offers an alternative way of surviving the ravages of racism. Angelou’s mother, urban, sophisticated, endowed with dazzling physical beauty “won’t bust suds for anybody or be anyone’s kitchen bitch”, a defiant stand in a society which saw black Americans as “maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen”.

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The “power” her mother had is linked to the use of the body as instrument as she partners with various boyfriends in gambling ventures and sundry activities on the edge of the lawful.

Yet the memoir-writer does not, as some present day feminst may, judge her mother harshly even if Angelou does note her mother’s lack: “Her fierce temper had not diminished with the passing of time,and when a passionate nature is not eased with moments of compassion, melodrama is likely to take the stage”.

Angelou’s own restraint emerges clearly in her recall of her rape at eight years old by Mr Freeman, one of her mother’s boyfriends. The incident is remembered without blaming the mother; yet it is not presented with excuses for the mother.

It is surely the mother’s self-centredness that makes her unable to see the dangers of city life after the children relocate to San Francisco to stay with her. That the mother’s life is packed with her own activities would have meant loneliness for Angelou, who tells the reader that she innocently welcomed Mr Freeman’s attention: “I began to feel lonely for Mr Freeman and the encasement of his big arms”.

Changing demographics, changing oppressors

In tracing her life with her mother, Angelou, at the same time, sketches the changing demographics of black America as more rural folk become internal migrants to urban areas. A wider world beckons even in foodways as her mother introduces the children to Chinese restaurants, Italian pizza parlours as well as the new flavours of Hungarian goulash and Irish stew so that “through food, we learned that there were other people in the world”.

Food, we reflect, are border markers of identity, but food can also facilitate porous border crossings and unconscious or conscious cosmopolitanism. In San Francisco, Angelou sees the emergence of a new urban black community as the Second World War rages on. The war deeply affected many African Americans who were “recruited from the dessicated farm lands of Georgia and Mississippi by war-plant labor scouts”.

We read that for the first time, a black man could “think of himself as a Boss, a Spender. He could pay others to work for him, I.e. the dry cleaners, taxi drivers, waitresses, etc”. Angelou reminds us that he was not empowered, only urbanised into a wage-earning consumer of goods and services. The two or three storey buildings which housed these new black workers soon became slums.

Worse, the oppressed can become oppressors, when the black Americans gladly took over Japanese businesses after the Japanese were forcibly relocated to camps. Angelou notes: “No member of my family and none of the family friends ever mentioned the absent Japanese. It was as if they never owned or lived in the houses we inhabited”.

Many Malaysian private schools offering ‘A’ Level English papers have wisely chosen to study Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings perhaps because it is never too early to reflect on what racism means. With this text, we can guide students to be reflective about their own penchant for stereotyping which stems from binarial black-and-white thinking.

I very much hope that, in spite of the pressing time constraints of exams, students and teachers alike would be allowed time to be self-reflexive, to discuss paradoxes and ironies rather than find instant answers. For all of us, Maya Angelou’s memoir, written in very accessible language, will surely be a stimulant to engaging discussions over coffee or tea.

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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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