I don’t remember exactly when I first read Maya Angelou’s autobiography I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. It wasn’t for school, but it was sometime in high school. I was moved and inspired by many African American writers at the time, particularly James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, but Angelou’s series of autobiographies captured my mind and my heart and stayed with me.
I have nothing in common with Ms. Angelou. I am a white girl, born with a certain amount of privilege, who grew up in the frustrating/stimulating and education-dominant Washington, DC. I was a vanilla suburbanite in the chocolate city. There are many powerful perks to growing up in that region. Even if you don’t care about politics, you’re immersed in it. The power, the money, the ambition are everywhere and shape what you think of the world. Even before I went to the President’s-kids-go-here school in 10th grade, when I was just a public school kid, I went to one of the best public schools in the country. I saw Presidents get inaugurated as a child and went to the White House Egg Roll for Easter. When I danced the kid part in the annual The Nutcracker, it was for the Joffrey Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Books and movies and television shows were about my home town. These are things I didn’t realize were inside of me until I left.
And by the time I was in high school, there were things about DC I wanted to escape. Things I hated: the classism, the racism, the elitism. The fear of living in a city with a large amount of crime. I didn’t want to let that fear rule me.
I also didn’t want to be what others expected of me, and DC felt full of that. My parents weren’t easy (still aren’t), and expectations are a family tradition.
Maybe this is typical of teenagers who feel so “other” in their own lives. Who want to shed their skin and distance themselves from what they know in order to find who they truly are. But I felt a deep connection with Ms. Angelou’s words, and they helped shape how I approached the discovery of who I wanted to be.
It wasn’t the differences that drew me to Ms. Angelou’s life story. It was the similarities. If you read Ms. Angelou’s biographies, you will see a life full of love, and pain, and disadvantage, and unexpected meetings, and surprises, and choices that lead from one point to the next. It’s crazy to think about the different roles she played in her own life. I identified with her, not because of shared experiences, but because of shared emotions. Analogous situations. Do I believe Ms. Angelou cultivated her story into something thematic that became more literary than the standard autobiography? Sure! But I identify with that too. I want to shape my own story into something that makes sense. Storytelling has become my religion.
And that too, may be a lasting legacy of Ms. Angelou’s influence on me: to tell stories, to write. She was an insurmountable spirit, woman, human being. I will miss the wisdom she still could have shared, but I will remember and cherish what she has already given to this world.
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS
GATHER TOGETHER IN MY NAME
SINGIN’ AND SWINGIN’ AND GETTIN’ MERRY LIKE CHRISTMAS
THE HEART OF A WOMAN
ALL GOD’S CHILDREN NEED TRAVELING SHOES
A SONG FLUNG UP TO HEAVEN