There are a lot of childhood memories that I’ve blocked out (and probably need to work through in therapy), but for a long time, Black History Month was an exhausting time of the year for me. As a first-generation Nigerian immigrant, I learned about Black American history at the same time as my white classmates but was expected to have deeper knowledge and personal insight to contribute in February classes because of my skin color. I could probably write an entire essay on the navigation of my Black identity as an African immigrant (or maybe I’ll do a video!), but rather than focus on the trauma, this month I want to celebrate the Black women in history who have shaped who I am as a Black woman today. I’m starting with Maya Angelou.
I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in middle school, at the height of both my internal struggle with my Black identity and my exploration with creative writing. Bored with the simplicity of suburban life, I visited my local library one summer day and was directed to the “Black literature section”. Since we were the only Black family in our small town (to my knowledge), there were a surprising number of classic Black books that hadn’t been checked out in years. That summer I read Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and way too many Eric Jerome Dickey books (RIP) for an 8th grader. The Color Purple felt too distant of a story for me to identify with, Beloved, Sula, and the Bluest Eye had themes too complex for me to appreciate, and Milk in My Coffee made me blush (and also hide the book so my parents wouldn’t see it).
But Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings struck me the most. Although I could not relate to or fully comprehend the pain of childhood rape or teenage motherhood, at its core, it was a coming of age novel about enduring racism that resonated with me at a time when I did not have the language to articulate my own identity formation and racial reckoning. In addition, Caged Bird presented to me, for the first time, the art and magic of autobiographical storytelling. I’d read memoirs and autobiographies in the past (most notably at that point, The Diary of Anne Frank), but no one’s personal story had captivated me so much as Caged Bird did.
In her lifetime, Maya Angelou had a variety of jobs. She lived in a number of different cities and countries. She suffered trauma and experienced great success. But she told her story, all of her stories, in captivating prose that inspired generations of other storytellers.
I’ve left my days of filling pages of my journals with poems and short stories behind me, but Maya Angelou’s choice to put her own story to paper, time and time again, inspired me to find merit and value in the stories of my life that have shaped me into the Black woman that I am today. I don’t write with nearly as much descriptive and transformative detail as Maya, and I don’t aspire to be a creative writer in that way, but I do believe that everyone can learn from her the power of owning and telling your story.