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Read by Maya Angelou
On Sale: September 03, 1996
ISBN: 978-0-679-45173-0
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Read by Maya Angelou
On Sale: January 04, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-87938-7
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Read by Maya Angelou
On Sale: November 29, 2005
ISBN: 978-0-7393-3470-6
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

2 CDs / 3 hours
Read by the Author, Maya Angelou

Also available on cassette


Superbly told--with the poet's gift for language and observation, and charged with the unforgettable emotion of remembered anguish and love--this remarkable autobiography by an equally remarkable black woman from Arkansas captures, indelibly, a world of which most Americans are unaware of.

Excerpt

Prologue

"What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay . . ."

I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

"What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay . . ."

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

"What you looking at me for . . . ?"

The children's section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness.

The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.

As I'd watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I'd look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, "Marguerite [sometimes it was 'dear Marguerite'], forgive us, please, we didn't know who you were," and I would answer generously, "No, you couldn't have known. Of course I forgive you."

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel's dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn't hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about "my daddy must of been a Chinaman" (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs' tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.

"What you looking ..." The minister's wife leaned toward me, her long yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, "I just come to tell you, it's Easter Day." I repeated, jamming the words together, "Ijustcometotellyouit'sEasterDay," as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying, "Lord bless the child," and "Praise God." My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn't see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children's pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I'd have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I'd get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn't die from a busted head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.


Chapter 1

When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed--"To Whom It May Concern"--that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.

Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare--he got off the train the next day in Arizona--and our tickets were pinned to my brother's inside coat pocket.

I don't remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for "the poor little motherless darlings" and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad.

Years later I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.

The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embraces a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly.

We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the rear of the Store (it was always spoken of with a capital s), which she had owned some twenty-five years.

Early in the century, Momma (we soon stopped calling her Grandmother) sold lunches to the sawmen in the lumberyard (east Stamps) and the seedmen at the cotton gin (west Stamps). Her crisp meat pies and cool lemonade, when joined to her miraculous ability to be in two places at the same time, assured her business success. From being a mobile lunch counter, she set up a stand between the two points of fiscal interest and supplied the workers' needs for a few years. Then she had the Store built in the heart of the Negro area. Over the years it became the lay center of activities in town. On Saturdays, barbers sat their customers in the shade on the porch of the Store, and troubadours on their ceaseless crawlings through the South leaned across its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigarbox guitars.

The formal name of the Store was the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store. Customers could find food staples, a good variety of colored thread, mash for hogs, corn for chickens, coal oil for lamps, light bulbs for the wealthy, shoestrings, hair dressing, balloons, and flower seeds. Anything not visible had only to be ordered.

Until we became familiar enough to belong to the Store and it to us, we were locked up in a Fun House of Things where the attendant had gone home for life.


Each year I watched the field across from the Store turn caterpillar green, then gradually frosty white. I knew exactly how long it would be before the big wagons would pull into the front yard and load on the cotton pickers at daybreak to carry them to the remains of slavery's plantations.

During the picking season my grandmother would get out of bed at four o'clock (she never used an alarm clock) and creak down to her knees and chant in a sleep-filled voice, "Our Father, thank you for letting me see this New Day. Thank you that you didn't allow the bed I lay on last night to be my cooling board, nor my blanket my winding sheet. Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow, and help me to put a bridle on my tongue. Bless this house, and everybody in it. Thank you, in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen."

Before she had quite arisen, she called our names and issued orders, and pushed her large feet into homemade slippers and across the bare Iye-washed wooden floor to light the coal-oil lamp.

The lamplight in the Store gave a soft make-believe feeling to our world which made me want to whisper and walk about on tiptoe. The odors of onions and oranges and kerosene had been mixing all night and wouldn't be disturbed until the wooded slat was removed from the door and the early morning air forced its way in with the bodies of people who had walked miles to reach the pickup place.

"Sister, I'll have two cans of sardines."

"I'm gonna work so fast today I'm gonna make you look like you standing still."

"Lemme have a hunk uh cheese and some sody crackers."

"Just gimme a couple them fat peanut paddies." That would be from a picker who was taking his lunch. The greasy brown paper sack was stuck behind the bib of his overalls. He'd use the candy as a snack before the noon sun called the workers to rest.

In those tender mornings the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting and bragging. One man was going to pick two hundred pounds of cotton, and another three hundred. Even the children were promising to bring home fo' bits and six bits.

The champion picker of the day before was the hero of the dawn. If he prophesied that the cotton in today's field was going to be sparse and stick to the bolls like glue, every listener would grunt a hearty agreement.

The sound of the empty cotton sacks dragging over the floor and the murmurs of waking people were sliced by the cash register as we rang up the five-cent sales.

If the morning sounds and smells were touched with the supernatural, the late afternoon had all the features of the normal Arkansas life. In the dying sunlight the people dragged, rather than their empty cotton sacks.

Brought back to the Store, the pickers would step out of the backs of trucks and fold down, dirt-disappointed, to the ground. No matter how much they had picked' it wasn't enough. Their wages wouldn't even get them out of debt to my grandmother, not to mention the staggering bill that waited on them at the white commissary downtown.

The sounds of the new morning had been replaced with grumbles about cheating houses, weighted scales, snakes, skimpy cotton and dusty rows. In later years I was to confront the stereotyped picture of gay song-singing cotton pickers with such inordinate rage that I was told even by fellow Blacks that my paranoia was embarrassing. But I had seen the fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls, and I had witnessed the backs and shoulders and arms and legs resisting any further demands.

Some of the workers would leave their sacks at the Store to be picked up the following morning, but a few had to take them home for repairs. I winced to picture them sewing the coarse material under a coal-oil lamp with fingers stiffening from the day's work. In too few hours they would have to walk back to Sister Henderson's Store, get vittles and load, again, onto the trucks. Then they would face another day of trying to earn enough for the whole year with the heavy knowledge that they were going to end the season as they started it. Without the money or credit necessary to sustain a family for three months. In cotton-picking time the late afternoons revealed the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature's blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight.
Maya Angelou

About Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Photo © Dwight Carter

Poet, writer, performer, teacher, and director Maya Angelou was raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and then moved to San Francisco. In addition to her bestselling autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she has also written a cookbook, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, and five poetry collections, including I Shall Not Be Moved and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
 
 
Praise | Awards

Praise

Praise for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“More than a tour de force of language or the story of childhood suffering . . . A summary of the incidents cannot do this book justice; one has to read it to appreciate its sensitivity and life.”
Newsweek

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”
–James Baldwin

“A beautiful book–an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time . . . Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative.”
–Kirkus Reviews

“Simultaneously touching and comic.”
–The New York Times

“A heroic and beautiful book.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer

Awards

NOMINEE 2012 Audie Awards
Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

Memoirist, novelist, poet, and dramatist, Maya Angelou is one of the best-loved writers of our time. She is widely acclaimed for her searing, inspiring writings--and she has been praised for confronting both the racial and sexual pressures on black women, and for infusing her work with a perspective on larger social and political movements, including civil rights.
In the volumes of her bestselling personal story--one of the most remarkable narratives ever shared--Maya Angelou writes about the struggles and triumphs of her extraordinary life with candor, humor, poignancy, and grace. These include:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The classic autobiography of her young years.
Gather Together In My Name

The coming-of-age story of her struggle for survival as a young unwed mother.
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas

The saga of her show business career, her failed marriage, and her early motherhood.
The Heart of a Woman

The turbulent story of her emergence as a writer and a political activist.
Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now

Her exhilarating collection of wisdom, spirituality, and life lessons.

About the Author

On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born Marguerita Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents soon divorced and she was sent to live with her grandmother in rural Arkansas, where she spent most of her early childhood. During a visit to St. Louis when she was eight years old, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, whom her uncles subsequently killed. Angelou did not speak for some years after. In 1940, Angelou moved to San Francisco with her mother. While attending high school, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son in 1945, just after receiving her diploma. To support her child and herself, she worked several odd jobs. While appearing as a dancer in a cabaret, she changed her name to Angelou. Her experience there led to an acting and singing career and she joined a cast performing "Porgy and Bess" throughout Europe. When she was thirty, Angelou moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met James Baldwin. She became involved in the civil rights movement, serving as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1959 to 1960. She later moved to Egypt, where she edited an English-language newspaper, and then to Ghana, working as a writer and editor. In 1970, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. An account of her childhood up to the birth of her son, it is her most critically-acclaimed work and was nominated for a National Book Award. She went on to write Gather Together in My Name, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, and Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. Her acclaimed works of poetry include Maya Angelou: Poems and I Shall Not Be Moved. In film and television, Angelou wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film "Georgia, Georgia," and wrote and produced a ten-part television series on African traditions in American life, and participated as guest interviewer for the Public Broadcasting System program "Assignment America." One of the few women members of the Directors Guild, she is the author of the television screenplays I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Sisters. In January 1993, Maya Angelou became the first woman and the first African-American to read her work at a presidential inauguration. Her inaugural poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" celebrates the diversity of the American and world communities and calls on them to work together to create a better future. She currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is Reynolds Professor at Wake Forest University.


From the Paperback edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Maya Angelou begins her autobiography with a moment of public humiliation in church. Why do you think she chose this scene in particular? Do themes in this scene reappear throughout the memoir?

2. To Marguerite, her mother seems alternately charming, elusive, unreliable and strong. Which episodes in the novel illuminate her character? Do you think she was a good mother?

3. Mrs. Flowers “encouraged [Marguerite] to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations” (100). What are some of the maxims that Angelou remembers hearing from Momma and Mother? Did any of these maxims strike a particular chord with you? Are there examples of “mother wit” that you remember from your own childhood, or pass on to those around you?

4. Angelou describes Marguerite as “superstitious” (166). Can you find some examples of Marguerite’s superstition?

5. How does Angelou describe her molestation and later her rape at the hands of Mr. Freeman? Were you surprised by her emotions? Was this terrible experience the defining moment of the novel or of Angelou’s childhood? Why or why not?

6. “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name’” (109), and when Mrs. Cullinan renames her “Mary,” she exacts her revenge. Can you think of other examples of naming and renaming in the book? What do you think it means to be “called out of [one’s] name”?

7. What did you think of the relationship between Glory and Mrs. Cullinan?

8. “I couldn’t force myself to think of them as people,” (26) Angelou writes of the whites in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. Does this change over the course of the novel?

9. How is Marguerite’s identity as a Black woman variously shaped by her own and others’ interactions with whites, including the “powhitetrash children” (28), middle class whites like Mrs. Cullinan and the sheriff, and Northern whites such as the employees of the Market Street Railway Company? Do you think that Marguerite is more powerfully affected by her own interactions or by the interactions she observes?

10. As the granddaughter of a comparatively poor businesswoman, Marguerite’s understanding of the world is shaped as much by class experience as by race. Can you think of some examples of class distinctions or inversions in the novel?

11. What are some of the communities that welcome Marguerite during her childhood? Which communities nurture her successfully? Which are less successful?

12. “He was my first white love,” (13) Angelou says of Shakespeare, but most of her teachers are Black. How does Angelou describe her education, both formal and informal? What lessons does she learn from those around her?

13. “We survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets,” (184) Angelou says of Black people. Do you think that this is true of all cultures?

14. The title is a reference to a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Why do you think that Angelou chose this title?

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