The BUZZ: Maya Angelou was a renowned author and poet, singer, dancer, and producer, a voice for women and blacks, and the recipient of multiple awards and honorary degrees. She published this memoir – the first of what turned out to be seven volumes – in 1969, when she was 31.
The GIST: This is the story of Angelou’s childhood from age 4 to 17, her memory of being raised initially by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas and later by her mother in St. Louis and Oakland. Her constant companion in her disjointed life is her brother, Bailey. Her grandmother, a successful businesswoman who owns a general store, is her refuge each time the two must return to Stamps. When a traumatic event leaves Angelou mute for 5 years, books become her escape, and this begins her lifelong love of words. As a teenager, Angelou spends a summer living in a homeless camp and later becomes the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. As the book closes, three weeks after graduation from the California Labor School, she gives birth to her son, Clyde.
The WRITING: This will seem like heresy to some Angelou fans, but at first I struggled to decide if this work was worth a read. Angelou tells her story in a stark, linear fashion, and the writing can be awkward in places. There is no analysis, and she does not explore major themes. Although she is looking back as an adult, she offers little psychological insight into her motives or limitations. I realized after I finished it that her gift to her readers is her unburdened memory, her clear, unflinching recollection of events and choices – her version of her truth. She makes no excuses and does not rage at fate (or her parents) for the things that happen to her. This is the opening salvo in a life story with a powerful message: we are not our circumstances.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. This autobiography is significant in many ways, including its historical and cultural themes, its portrayal of race in America, its foray into feminism, and the autobiographical form itself. But don’t expect opinions or pronouncements on any of those topics; Angelou will let you arrive at your own conclusions, and that’s what makes her worth a read.
Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.