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I knew Maya Angelou in the way millions of other people knew her. I read her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and felt as if I knew her with an intimacy to which I shouldn’t have been privy, since I had never met her. At least at 19, that’s how it felt to me.
Before I went to college at Wittenberg University in 1983, I was not much of a reader of literature. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, in a predominantly African-American, working-class community and attending public schools, I wasn’t expected to be much of a reader. In fact, it wasn’t a skill set that was encouraged, particularly for boys. So I almost never read novels or poetry. I read what boys read if they wanted to be perceived as cool — comics and science books, books that I could get away with reading without looking too studious.
At Wittenberg, I decided to get involved with the black student union, Concerned Black Students (CBS). As a member of CBS, I had access to the Black Culture House, which had a big sign above the porch identifying it as such. On the second floor there was a generously stocked library of books of African and African-American studies and literature. It was in this house that I discovered three books that would change me forever: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” as told to Alex Haley; and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Angelou’s memoir was the first I read, mainly because I recognized her name from her poems and I thought the title was clever. I had just completed a paper on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” — the first paper in college for which I received an A — and I recognized the line from Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”
At Black Culture House, it was not unusual to find yourself alone for an hour or so, depending on the schedules of the other students of color. And so was the case this day. I went upstairs, sat in an armchair, put my feet up and started to read. It was late morning, maybe around 10:30 or 11 a.m. The sun was out, and I loved how it shone into the room through the window facing the street.
I couldn’t articulate it then, but I knew there was something, some truth telling, on those pages that — in my mind, at least — black people weren’t supposed to say in public. Who, from my neighborhood, for instance, would admit to any kind of family dysfunction? Who would admit to not having certain clothes? Enough food? Who talked about sex? Who talked about sexual assault? Who talked about desire or even love?
The prose struck me as a familiar way of speaking that had suddenly become eloquent. It was like how people talked at home — if they would talk this openly — but the way it was presented made it sound elevated. The language of my life was suddenly high art.
I had a hard time reconciling this and was also completely seduced by it — the mystery of it, the newness of it. So I read on. Other students arrived in the house. I would tell them what I was reading, ask if they had read it. Some had, some had not. I stayed there in the sun-drenched room. After a while, the window didn’t seem as generous with the light. The sun had shifted into late afternoon. Then it got later, and I had to turn on a light.
Halfway through the book, I felt something shift in me. I was learning something that I couldn’t get from school; I know this because I decided to skip my next class. I sat and read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in one day. This was a first for me. I had never read a book, unless you count a comic book, in one sitting.
I wanted to keep reading because I wanted the book to end with her saying, “And that’s how I overcame all this.” So I read to get to that part. I thought, “If she can get through all of this, and this is all true, I want to know her secret to life.” I also felt a new urge in me as a young man; I wanted to be able to say that I had read a book in one sitting. I needed that. I was doing mediocre work at school at the time, which I explained away with my lack of preparedness for college. In fact, I think I was looking for an excuse not to finish school. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but in retrospect, I know what was building within me. The insecurity was monstrous.
People often focus on the more sensational moments from Angelou’s memoir, but what moved me the most was a quiet scene in which she applies for a job as a San Francisco streetcar conductor and faces discrimination. After she gets the job, she has this epiphany: “Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware.” This aphorism perfectly explained my life up to that day. Maya Angelou would remain a kind of literary conductor, as she, in her own words, “clanged and cleared” a way for me and for millions of other readers.