This summer, while taking part in Mark Faust’s Young Adult Literature, my passion for reading and writing returned with a vengeance. In many ways, my scholarly detachment evaporated while reading Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was like sitting back and listening to an old familiar song. I was struck dumb by the beauty and horror of Angelou’s life-tale. She wrote sincerely as one only could if they had personally lived amongst the sensations, the pain and the artistry of the black south of the 1930s. When she described her grandmother’s store in Stamps, Arkansas, she took me there by her hand.
Maya utilizes vernacular that is never lofty or dense. Still, both her descriptions and characterizations are extraordinary. I struggled to figure out why her prose were so sensational. In the absence of complicated or lofty lexicon there was a simple trueness. Her work is poignant and universal because it is free of “putting on airs” and instead rings of blunt honesty. In one paragraph she can both capture and haunt you. Her story is beautiful because she lived it, her story is powerful because it is her testimony alone. Angelou turned the focus of her book not just to the hardships of a black girl growing up in Arkansas, but to the rich memories of day to day existence. Not all of her descriptions had pin-pointed meanings or “themes.” Much of her tale was unresolved, uncalculated and un-explainable.
As a person who often feels I can handle anything and be exposed to whatever, I was amazed at the empathy, horror and stimulation I experienced when reading the rape scene in the book. The molestation and then destruction of Maya’s whim hit me like no other scene in any work ever has before. That statement seems overblown and exaggerated, but I believe it’s not overstated. I had no idea that Mr. Freeman was going to rape Angelou, so the shock and bluntness of the scene hit a universal childlike chord in me that recoiled and wrenched in pain as I read. I read those paragraphs two or three times and was disgusted in the cruelty and horror of the experience. It was as if I didn’t know that such things could happen in this world. It’s as if I lost my sheltered understandings along with Maya.
I have no idea how Angelou fashioned this mimetic experience, but I sat back in my chair in the famous Blackwells Bookstore of Oxford and wept and grew angry and vowed to God that I would make things like this stop. I wanted to use my writing to make the evil of men like Mr. Freeman die away. I wanted my creative writing to be the scream heard on every corner.
I wrote in my journal in that moment, “Thee terror and anger and stimulation that I experienced when I read of Maya’s rape has turned into an inextinguishable fire. If I knew that was happening to a girl I would stop at nothing. I would scream in the streets until the world would shut me up. Help me Lord, to know what to do with my zeal, this mamma-bear-heart.”
What was even more painful was to hear that young Maya’s voice was stolen from her after this incidence,
“I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and pack them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still – in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds (94) […] Colors weren’t true either, but rather a vague assortment of faded pastels that indicated not so much color as faded familiarities.(99).”
This summer I was reminded again that I want to be the teacher for the voiceless, the one who rescues those whose voices are snatched up by unimaginable horror. I want to be the one through beauty, love and grace tells the shut-up-girls, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It take the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” The theft of a voice is not one I am built to handle. I feel after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings a call to defend, a call to write and a call to teach. I rediscovered a will to write and to show others to do so, girls who have lost the will to be seen or heard. I want to rediscover and re-impassion lost girls like Maya Angelou.
Ever since that day, I’ve been writing more frequently than ever. While Dr Faust led me to rediscover a joy for reading, I also discovered my passion and purpose for writing and now I can’t seem to stop:) Luckily, Dr Faust is a man who is happy to read any response you give in reaction to a novel. I am grateful to him for his openness to all my long-winded essays this summer. It was through his encouragement and his free course that I’ve figured out again who I am as a writer and as an educator.