Although this memoir is specifically the story of Maya’s childhood, first in Stamps, Arkansas, and then in San Francisco, it also describes – like the best memoirs – some universal truths about life, in this case, specifically life as a Black child growing up in the United States in the 30’s and 40’s. And what a story she has to tell! It begins with she and her brother being sent by train (by themselves) across the country to live with their grandmother:
“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.”
Don’t you just want to keep reading? She and her brother lived through some incredible challenges and unusual circumstances, but the book is also about everyday life and the universal experience of growing up. As you might expect from a famous poet, she has a way with words. Her writing just pulled me right into the center of the story, right there in the small southern town with her where Blacks did not go to the white section of town, and whites rarely entered the Black section.
Not only does she tell an interesting story, but Angelou also has a way of getting to the heart of things. She often shares the wisdom that her silent but strong grandmother taught her, like “…I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.” As much as I thought I knew about the history of prejudice and segregation, seeing it from a small Black child’s perspective was eye opening and often startling, as here when a special occasion is ruined by a well-meaning but ignorant white politician:
“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.”
Her story was heart-warming, entertaining, and at times, heart-breaking. I was laughing out loud through many chapters (so much so that my husband kept asking what was so funny!) and close to tears while reading others. She has an amazing knack for capturing what it is like to be a child, putting herself back in those innocent moments when some of the things adults talked about were totally mystifying and a first friendship was transforming. I never wanted the story to end. Despite the fact that I have stacks of books waiting to be read, I want to run right to the library to read her next memoir and find out what happened in the next stage of her life. It’s a terrible shame that this emotionally powerful book is one of those most frequently banned.