I have just finished reading this book for a second time, choosing to re-read it in tribute to the poet who died earlier this year. What strikes me about the process of re-reading, is how different this reading was from my first. The first reading had been a shock, a jolt. The key moment was the rape of a young girl; it was sickening, frightening, unknowable or at least unspeakable. However, it was clearly (even beautifully) articulated as a young girl’s experience. It was an amazing narrative trick that the adult voice of the writing was also the young, abused girl.
‘Was that the first time the accused touched you?’ The question stopped me. Mr Freeman had surely done something very wrong, but I was convinced that I had helped him to do it. I didn’t want to lie, but the lawyer wouldn’t let me think, so I used silence as a retreat.
‘Did the accused try to touch you before the time he, or rather you say he, raped you?’
This time, the second reading, the jolt came as I realised how much more to the story there was than a simple narrative arc: racial injustice, familial love, disrupted by abuse and then overcome by that same familial love and personal fortitude. In the second reading, all these elements are there, but the narration is much more complex and the elements of injustice (child abuse, racism, poverty, sexism) much more deeply interwoven. Angelou’s writing is not just about her own (mis)fortune, it sets in context how abuse is perpetuated through the establishment of privilege. Poverty and inequality is the milieu. Segregation taints all relationships and this is explored from the perspective of the disenfranchised, (selectively) mute, black, poor, female child and the glimpses of whiteness and difference she encounters
People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn’t like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren’t considered folks. They were white-folks.
Academic study has given me a name for this – “situated knowledges” (Harraway, 2004), the realisation that knowledge is produced from within particular situations and standpoints. This off-sets the dominant discourse of knowledge as neutral and objective. The other key word that I have learnt since my first reading is “intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1989). At the time of that first reading (around 1990) I would have already described myself as a feminist. I was also concerned with anti-racist politics and interested in disability rights. I was yet to realise that these did not have to be separate facets of social justice. Whilst I can now define intersectionality as a refusal to see difference in terms of mutually exclusive categories, I am still trying to bring my full understanding to this and to consider what this means in practice and for experience and knowledge. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings supports that learning.
As a book that centres on school years, it says a great deal about learning. One of Maya’s most famous quotes to be found on many a postcard, originated in this book. Whilst the postcards attribute this to her mother, in this book it is attributed to Miss Flowers, the aristocracy of Stamps, the black southern town. She goes on to say:
She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
Does the attribution of the quote matter? Yes and no. It is powerful whoever, said it but, if it is written down by Angelou, I can use it in my teaching; it can be cited. If it remains a family or community saying that only holds currency within that family or community does it remain legitimate for me to use in teaching? Where does experiential knowledge sit in the academy? How do we work with the tension between what I know from experience and what my textbook is telling me? And what does this mean for social justice?
This book has more to tell me about social justice and the social injustice of fixing categories, reproducing boundaries and limits. Maya Angelou’s story matters because it acts as a counter-balance to the current dominant discourse of child abuse as permanent damage, where infant experience outweighs any adult experience (see here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/infant_determinism/13814). This is a professional discourse where the child is positioned as passive, isolated and with the impossibility of escape. This is not to deny the harm that abuse does, but that the discourse forecloses other possibilities and potential. Angelou’s own life, if not this text, is a story of different possibilities: working with civil rights leaders, reading her poetry at Clinton’s inauguration and Michelle Obama reading at Angelou’s funeral, is far from the projected prognosis for a victim of child rape. However, it is not just the story which is important, it is also the way it is told.
It is a story that demands reading and re-reading. I will revisit it again in a few years, expecting a further jolt and destabilising of what I think I know. After two readings can I confidently say, like Angelou, that I know why the caged bird sings? Maybe not – I can make educated guesses about resistance, anger, hope, pain, etc. But to further understanding, I need to keep reading and attending to the words of experience.
Angelou, M. (1969) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings London: Virago
Harraway, D. (2004) “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives” in Harding, S. (ed.) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies London: Routledge
Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics’ The University of Chicago Legal Forum 140:139-167