Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents' marriage fell apart when she was three and her brother, Bailey, four and her father sent her and her brother off to Stamps, Arkansas to live with his mother. Maya's grandmother came to be called 'Momma' by both the children, neither of them able to remember their real mother and father at all as they grew. 'Momma' ran a grocery store in the black area of the town, so although the family were not by any means rich, they were not as poorly off as many of their neighbours whose main employment was cotton picking and who existed at subsistence level.
Maya and Bailey are reasonably happy living with their grandmother and Uncle Willie, who is disabled. Bailey is Maya's rock and they face the world together, finding humour in various situations, and trying to understand the difference between them and the white folk. It seems even the poorest of the whites are better than them and it's quite permissable for their children to stand in the store and mock Maya's grandmother and none of them can do anything about it.
A few years later - Maya is eight - their father arrives out of the blue. The children soon realise that he's going to take them away with him and they will at last meet their mother, though she does not now live with their father. They live with her for about a year; their stay comes to an abrupt end when something traumatic happens to Maya and she stops speaking. Back they go to their grandmother. Maya will only speak to Bailey - this lasts for years - until a woman called Mrs. Flowers comes into her life and introduces her to poetry and literature. Maya has always been a keen reader but now she has focus in her life and something to retreat into when things get unbearable.
The children do eventually return to live with their mother. By then they're teenagers and things are very different. For a start they are now living in San Francisco and although blacks are still second class citizens, there is in California a lot more room for manouevre than there was in Stamps, Arkansas.
Hard for me to know what to say about a book which is probably one of the most iconic pieces of literature to come out of the southern states of the USA. And such an author! This about sums it up:
I suppose the first thing to admit is that as a white person, this book made me feel very uncomfortable. I know this was the 1930s and things were very different back then, but injustice is injustice and just because it was eighty years ago doesn't mean I was able to think, 'It's history, it doesn't matter any more'. Several episodes stick in my memory. The white kids mocking 'Momma' and Maya feeling completely helpless; the awful thing that happened to Maya, which I won't into as I don't want to spoil it for other readers; what happened when Maya needed dental work; the Graduation when Maya was twelve and a white dignitary made a speech basically telling these black kids that it didn't matter how well they did at school, all they were good for for waiting table or being servants in white people's houses or, if they were really lucky, they might become sports stars. A lot of it made me feel quite murderous to be honest.
The other thing that sticks in my mind is Maya herself. Her determination not to be cowed by the circumstances of her childhood, her strength, her dignity, her belief that she was as good as anyone else whether her skin was black, white or something inbetween. She became the first black person ever to be a streetcar conductor in San Francisco for instance. They didn't want to employ her but she kept at them and eventually they hired her. I love that kind of bloodyminded persistance, to my mind it's the only way to bring change about and I admire her so much for that.
The book ends when Maya is fifteen or sixteen. I'm not going to say what life-changing thing has happened, you'll have to read the book... though I suspect most people already have. There are five autobiographical volumes altogether - or maybe six - and I hope to get to all of them this year. This is the only one I'll use for this challenge though as I want to vary what I read for it. I will however be adding this to my own 'Read around America' personal challenge.