Where did I find a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? My inner city school library? A class book area or a teacher putting it in my hand? I was about 16 years old. I remember not having any sense of expectation or previous knowledge of the book. About a few pages into I realized I was reading something that interested me. It seemed like a memoir of sorts but more and she described the story of herself as a young child being raped and when she told of what happened, the man was murdered and she refused to speak as a result for a long time. In her silence a teacher helped her in part by guiding her to read classic books and the child eventually spoke again. I was very moved by this.
Then as the story continues if I remember correctly she got a job of some sort where she wore a uniform and than she had a baby at 17. I remember her fear of being a mother and how the baby named Guy fit in the crook of her hip very naturally. The day or two it took to read it I remember it was sunny outside. When I think of this book the atmosphere of that time comes back to me like hearing an old song on the radio. Here I thought is a book with a long poetic title, a modern book, and speaks of difficult things and I identified. I thought heck here someone wrote of social issues and it's in the library wow! I think her style is considered autobiographical fiction.
Not knowing who she was by appearance my first memory of actually seeing Maya Angelou was at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. I must have been about 29 years old. I didn't get to see her recite the poem for whatever reason and only have the memory of Clinton receiving her warmly and she being gracious like a famous Soprano recieving a standing ovation. I didn't know who she was at that momment and it would take some time until I learned her name and connected that event with the book I had read in highschool. In my imagination this event was like the scene from a Willa Cather book The Song of The Lark where an Opera Singer is given a precious stone by a King.
This was long before people commonly had Google or the internet and so the time lags between first discovering a writer and finding out about them was longer. As for me I don't really remember seeing her picture on that slim novel I had read as a teen. The book cover was white and the title was written in black and there was a picture of a bird cage. And a typical book blurb on the back. No photo of the writer which is fairly common now to include this in books. So between the time I read this very influential book to me in the early 80's in highschool until more than ten years later I never knew what she looked like.
Now understanding what had happened, years later when looking back on the the Clinton inauguration I always cry a little. That Maya Angelou could write about such difficult truthful things so beautifully and second that Clinton and the American public recognized this be honoring her for it by having her read a poem at his inaguration. Now if I was a wiki hound I would go to wiki and find out all this information my brain is lacking about that poem, watch video clips, but for whatever reason I enjoy just writing about what I remember and what is important to me, what comes up. The reason Maya Angelou is important to me is not because of the facts on wiki or the internet. No video clip could capture that initial experience reading one of her novels nor glimpsing her for the first time while being honored by the president.
The next book I stumbled upon was around 1997 I can't remember exactly. I was heavily into audio books on tape from our public library. I was divorced after a ten year relationship 87-97 and racewalking a lot and would listen to them. My ex had been a couch potato and I was rebelling against watching TV so turned to this instead and the radio. During my eight years living alone I would guess I listened to conservatively 100 audio books ranging from the Iliad, Benjamin Franklin's life, to obscure mystery novels and than books that might be called women's issues or fiction. I also had a big love of trashy novels in general in addition to classics and history. Somewhere one day I picked up a book by Maya Angelou called "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes". Since I listened to it while racewalking when I think of this book images of the desert arroyo I was following return to me.
The first time I heard her voice was on this audio book as she read outloud. This book touched on her experience being an actress and entertainer. She wrote about this apartment and I enjoyed the description. The place was fresh and had colorful posters and throw pillows and it just seemed nice and arty. Then in this book she traveled to Africa with Guy. Having been raised on an Indian Reseration in the northern USA I feel an alliance with people who are from two or more cultures. Since I was now 33 years old and plenty of time had passed since the first book of hers I had read I was glad to hear about Guy as a young adult. It was neat. Since the last book I had read he was just a baby so it was good to get some belated news of him haha. Although I would guess he was born before me.
So from the time I was 16, 29 until 33 I don't remember hearing the sound of her voice. When listening to it I found it confident and had a polite please no-nonsense quality. I appreciated it's grownupness and wisdom. I could be myself listening to that voice. I could racewalk and listen to audio books and think my own singular thoughts. I liked her. I was also a bit in awe that she had the gumption to be an entertainer and to go to Africa with Guy and try these things out. She was a role model for me. I also liked a lot that she kept her house nice and took care of her son. I just liked it that she was not falling apart at the seams like some artists and was a serious person.
Then somewhere in the next years I read a New Yorker article talking about her tome of works and overall the writer said that they held up stongly and I felt from the two books I had read the same thing. In this article they mentioned that the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a line from an existing poem. Somewhere I found out she has written 6 autobiographical fiction books. I also learned she was a creative writing teacher and of course years later I have read of her great friendship with Oprah Winfrey and can appreciate the good feelings between them.
So the first time I read a book by her as a teen and then later seeing Maya Angelou at Clinton's inauguration were she had been invited to recite a poem she wrote for the occassion and listening to an audio books on tape hearing her voice, further reading about her in magazines, it has taken me literally 30 years to amass these impressions. If someone had asked me at 16 what I thought I wouldn't have known then she would be an influence in my life. In my minds eye of my imagination I have a picture of Maya Angelou receiving a jewel from us all in recognition of her artistic talents and pioneering writing style.