When I was still a youth, I first heard of Maya Angelou though a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) broadcast showcasing Angelou’s first highly acclaimed memoir: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings released in 1969. The first of Angelou’s Memoirs is a powerful narrative that tells of a traumatic event in her childhood that led to a bout of selective mutism that lasted for five years, because she felt her words “killed a man”; and it is no doubt this particular event in her life that redirected her energies into the keen self reflection and insight apparent in each of her engaging memoirs. The word’s of Angelou’s poem by the same name I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reflect the pain and entrapment she must have felt as a child “The free bird leaps on the back of the wind” but the caged bird is trapped and can” seldom see through his bars of rage”.
I was struck even then, as a young teenager by the sage wisdom and natural intuitive instinct inherent in Angelou’s poems and her pilot memoir; it was after I had aged and attained my own levels of insight that I realized Angelou’s powerful words had even greater depth than I had originally imagined. Angelou had what the old people who raised me, called Mother-Wit, the knowledge bred from a history of the oppression of black women that led to a special type of refined knowledge that was used as a well honed tool of survival. As the author, Joy Bennet Kinyon stated, the term Mother-wit was code for what you needed to know to survive.
Angelou’s choice of words used in her five autobiographies includes phraseology that belongs to the refined and educated as well as terms appropriate to those who are street smart. The reading of Angelou’s six gems of her life will give new insight into people, motivations, causes and reasons for living.
The autobiographies each can stand alone as they catalogue not only a time in the life of an American Legend, Poet Laureate and model for living, but they show levels of growth uninhibited by fear, societal norms and rules. Why else could a young girl raised by an elderly grandmother from tiny Stamps Arkansas grow into a woman who traveled the world before she was forty years old and before she became famous and well resourced. Angelou was a Dancer, a Singer, Stage Performer, wife of an African Dignitary, Author and Activist before the publication of her first memoir and all without the privilege of wealth or the assistance of powerful people.
The memoirs in Angelou’s collection include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’, and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and A Song Flung Up to Heaven; covering Angelou’s childhood during a racist time in America, through the Civil Rights Era and up to her meeting with James Baldwin (the acclaimed author of The Fire Next Time) who convinced her to begin her autobiographical journey.
Maya Angelou’s list of achievements are too long to recount, among her many accolades is the fact she was chosen by Bill Clinton to perform her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at his inaugural address, the first poet to recite at a Presidential Inauguration since Robert Frost. President Barak Obama presented Maya Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.