Feminist Reading Journey: Maya Angelou, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’

Image: The Kawaii Kollective

Before I begin talking about Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ I want to talk a little bit again about why I started this journey. For those who don’t know, or haven’t read my previous posts, I began what I have deemed as my ‘feminist’ reading journey because I had still not read a lot of the ‘classics’ of feminist literature.

Although, so far in my journey I am quite confident that most of the authors I have read would identity as feminists (in fact, I have seen the majority say they are one) but that doesn’t mean all of them will identify as feminists. Since, I want to explore works not only by feminist authors but that have feminist themes, or more importantly showcase an experience that I have no authority on; I personally don’t see this to be an issue. Also, many people also forget that feminism, as part of its mission for equality should also take into account other issues, such as class inequality, racism, prejudice, and abillity (so I intend to look at works that cover this experience as well). Some times then the books I read may not have feminism, as its main theme, but it will always be there lurking in the background.

For me this journey is about learning about other experiences. I have heard about a lot of the voices of people who have had different experiences to me from seeing their quotes plastered on social media. Maya Angelou was a voice that cropped up again and again. I engaged with her, yes, but only on a surface level. The reason I started this journey then quite simply was to stop mildly paying attention and full immerse myself in feminism.

I also think Maya Angelou is important when we live in a world where people try to speak to an experience they have not lived through, or completely understand. As although a lot of people may think they know what it was like growing up black in the 1930s and 1940s in South America; Maya Angelou actually knows what the experience was like. She lived it.

After all, one of the main debates within feminist theory started from the idea that as woman we all share the same experiences, and so can be united over this experience. This train of thought however was shattered when many pointed out that women of colour, for example, not only face the world with the prejudice of being a woman, but an added prejudice because of their skin colour. Low income women also have a different experience from women with a higher income. Queer women have a different experience. Trans women have a different experience- one that should not be discounted.

Recently, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, received backlash over her comments about the difference between a cis women and a trans women’s experience:

“My feeling is trans women are trans women…I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change, switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman.”

Laverne Cox, famous for starring in Orange Is The New Black responded in a series of tweets in which she weighs in other Adichie’s comments:

“I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up. I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and I was bullied and shamed for that.

My femininity did not make me feel privileged. I was a good student and was very much encouraged because of that but I saw cis girls who showed academic promise being nurtured in the black community. I grew up in Mobile, Ala.

Gender exists on a spectrum & the binary narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional. Gender is constituted differently based on the culture we live in. There’s no universal experience of gender, of womanhood. To suggest that is essentialist and again not intersectional.

Many of our feminist foremothers cautioned against such essentialism and not having an intersectional approach to feminism. Class, race, sexuality, ability, immigration status, education, all influence the ways in which we experience privilege. So though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition. Patriarchy and cissexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is before my transition I was called a girl and after I am very often called a man. Gender policing and the fact that gender binaries can only exist through strict policing complicates the concept gendered privilege & that’s ok cause it’s complicated. Intersectionality complicates both male and cis privilege.

That is why it is paramount that we continue to lift up diverse trans stories. For too many years there’s been too few trans stories in the media. For over 60 years since Christine Jorgensen stepped off the plane from Europe and became the first internationally known trans woman the narrative about trans folks in the media was one of macho guy becomes a woman. That’s certainly not my story or the stories of many trans folks I know. That narrative often works to reinforce binaries rather than explode them. That explosion is the gender revolution, I imagine, one of true gender self determination.”

What Laverne’s response to Chimamanda’s argument reveals is that the argument over shared experiences vs. intersectionality is one that is still taking place within feminist politics. What the response also demonstrates if that stating why you disagree with an opinion is more powerful than declaring the other person should not speak, and that you can have a dialogue without it turning to aggression.

Hence, why like Laverne suggests to do, I have made it my mission to read as many different voices who have had as many different experiences as possible (though unfortunately there is still quite a sizeable gap in experiences written by trans women). I might not always agree with what they define in terms of feminism. I, for example, don’t agree with Chimamanda’s views about transgender women, but agree with her on many different issues. However, though I disagree with her on this issue that does not mean I will ignore ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, for example, and it one of the books I intend to read in my journey. I will also read books by people that have created very polarising opinions such as the works of  Lena Dunham and Sophia Amoruso because I think it is better to engage these works for their positives and negatives rather than ignore them.

However, I’ve talked enough about my reasonings now; it’s time for me to talk about ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’.

For those who have not read the book yet I shall start by issuing a warning that the book contains rape/child abuse. This discussion also contains quite a lot of spoilers, which is something which my reviews/ discussions usually do not contain, but I found it hard to talk about the significance of this novel without raising significant plot points. 

Maya I Know WhyImage: April Wilson 

The first in a series of autobiographies by Maya Angelou, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ deals with the period in Angelou’s life up until she is 17 (date wise that is up until 1944). Like Angelou, the book is fearless, and honest in the way so few books are. Unsurprisingly, it instantly gripped me in a way that I hadn’t felt about in a book in a while (and in fact needed- I was getting way too distanced from my earlier love of reading).

The book’s honesty reminded me of the book ‘Chinese Cinderella’ by Adeline Yen Mah that I strongly suggest you read if you haven’t already. Like Angelou, Adeline Yen Mah wrote her autobiographies later in life, which is why I think both books are so ‘honest’ (I’m not saying that everything is completely 100% true- just that it feels like the authors are not holding anything back). Time, as we all know, gives us perspective and most importantly lets us distance ourself from the embarrassment we felt over particular events. There are many events that I am able to freely talk about now, like, for example, the stress that came with having an extremely heavy period during a class trip; that would have embarrassed me to talk about as freely as I do now at the time.

The themes of the book are best summed up by Maya Angelou herself and the quote I chose to accompany the illustration for this book, which Caroline from The Kawaii Collective very kindly illustrated, does just that:

“The black female is assaulted in her tender years by all the common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in a crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power.”

-Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

Image: The Kawaii Kollective

This drawing, along with all of my other collaborations with The Kawaii Collective was originally inspired by Kimothy Joy’s collaboration with The Huffington Post.

Be sure to also check out Caroline’s Etsy shop if you like what you see and want to purchase her art work!

Angelou’s experience demonstrates this quote and then some. Not only does she have to cope with the hatred from the white children who came into her grandmother’s store; she has to deal with the threat of the Klux Klux Klan in a scene early in the book.  Although the sheriff tells them of the threat; he does not offer any protection and they are left hoping that their Uncle Willie will not be lynched (and end up hiding him in a bin of potatoes and onions in case anyone comes by the store). Maya herself is also sexually abused and raped at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend.

Through all this Angelou remains a fighter, despite her vulnerability. In fact, she remains a fully realised human being. This might seem stupid of me to mention until you realise how it is only when black people tell their stories that they are in fact given fully realised characters. See this article for a better explanation of what I am referring to, as I do not feel I have further authority to speak on the subject, not having experienced the same situation in terms of representation, as the author of the article.

However, Angelou is unsurprisingly failed by the world. She becomes pregnant towards the end of the novel through sex she doesn’t even enjoy, “I…didn’t enjoy it.” Not at all surprising considering the experience ended with: “My partner showed that our experience had reached its climax by getting up abruptly”.

Why have the sex then? Because she feared she might be a lesbian, which spells out why sex education is needed stronger than most examples I know (I know this is of course set in an earlier time period, but sex education today is lacking in the way it teaches consent and LBGTQ+ issues).

Especially, considering the stereotypes she believes make up a lesbian still persist today:

“After a through self-examination, in the light of all I had read and heard about dykes and bulldaggers, I reasoned that I had none of the obvious traits- I didn’t wear trousers, or have big shoulders or go in for sports, or walk like a man or even want to touch a woman.”

Not only do these stereotypes perpetuate the idea that someone who identifies as female and has a muscular body frame cannot be attractive (which is completely untrue, they are beautiful and rock); it opens up a whole host of other problems, like putting woman off sports. Something which still persists, as I personally know women who have stopped sports they were good at, as they were told they had to bulk up and were afraid of looking like a ‘man’. Gender does not have to exist under this binary lines, and putting being a lesbian under this category damages not only lesbian women especially, but everyone.

There is though still hope within the story. Like I mentioned Angelou is a fighter. Within the novel alone she becomes the first black female streetcar conductor in San Fransisco because of her refusal to back down when they repeatedly tell her she cannot have the job. It also shows in the wide range of roles she has played, as USA Today reports: “Angelou has been a memoirist, poet, civil rights activist, actress, director, professor, singer and dancer”.

Maya Angelou also is now Dr. Maya Angelou, as: “Although she never went to college, she has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees”.

Her birthday also coincides with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the 4th April, 1968. In response, for year she didn’t celebrate her birthday. Instead: “She and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006, would “meet or talk or send each other flowers” on April 4. Each year, she continues to say a birthday prayer, “a prayer for the country.”

Maya Angelou then refuses to back down, and be defeated. It’s no coincidence that one of her most famous poems is called ‘Still I Rise‘. You need only read her work to see it.

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about Maya Angelou’s life, although I recommend reading her autobiographies first, here are a few articles to read that may provide helpful:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/25/biography.mayaangelou

(Covers the subjects of some of her later autobiographies)

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/growing-up-maya-angelou-79582387/?no-ist