Posted in Book Reviews

Hope and Dignity That Defied Her Circumstance

Snip20160710_6I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou dedicates her “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” autobiography to her son “Guy Johnson, and all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs”(Angelou, Kindle Edition, pg 309).

In this dedication Angelou indicates that she is one of those “black birds” that defied the odds. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” above all is a story of resilience. Angelou overcame the severe circumstances of her childhood and emerged on the positive side.

Angelou begins her story from early childhood. Maya and her brother, Bailey, were sent to the depression era deep south to live with her paternal grandmother. Told in the first person and from the child’s perspective the events come to life. The reader is able to see clearly how the preschool Maya and Bailey experienced the 2000-mile journey cross country by train to rural Stamps, Arkansas. As an adult reader I cannot help but react with shock to see these children repeatedly placed in precarious circumstance. Maya adds an adult comment regarding her journey, “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” (Angelou, pp. 7-8).

Angelou makes clear from the beginning that she was a child at risk when she says, “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” (Angelou, pg 6). Nowhere in the novel is the reader allowed to breathe a sigh of relief because Angelou is never completely safe or secure. In Stamps, Maya receives attentive care from her grandmother and has a home, but safety remains tenuous because of the pervasive, oppressive, and violent white racism. This stress and threat finally forces the grandmother to travel the children west following their junior high school graduation. The child, Maya, does not understand the terror her grandmother must have felt to return Maya and Bailey to the care of their parents. These were the same parents that demonstrated criminal neglect repeatedly. The worse of the neglect allowed Maya to be raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the tender age of 8. (It was the rape that prompted the second retreat of the children to Stamps).

The Angelou story is a rich primary source to examine theories of child development and the factors that affect the development of self. Risk, resiliency response, attachment theory, trauma, trauma recovery, and positive self-development are a ready subject for discussion in reviewing the Angelou autobiography.  Normal attachment in childhood returns security. Insecure attachment is a breach in safety resulting from inconsistent care and nurture.

Notable in Angelou’s story is her amazing ability to recount events in detail as early as 3 years of age. But we do not have any view of her life during the formative first 3 years when attachment theory asserts the ability to form a positive self occurs. Maya’s parents were clearly disengaged beginning with the preschool transition to Stamps. But it is likely that enough positive early parental attachment occurred to allow Maya and Bailey to self sooth in response to the continual flow of stress and risk in the through their childhood years. Dan Siegel says, “the idea of attachment is that I use the soothing experience from my caregiver to promote the development of the limbic areas of my brain to allow me to learn to soothe myself by first using other people in communication and next by learning to actually self-soothe” (DeLys, Sherre, Lynne Malcolm, Charles Zeanah, Dan Siegel, Dana Johnson. 2006. “Early Childhood and the Developing Brain.” All in the Mind. Transcript).

Family cohesion is strongest in Maya’s life with her grandmother in Stamps and throughout her life with her brother, Bailey. These relationships help to provide resilience in the face of the general dysfunction and disengagement of Maya’s mother and father. Angelou affirms the importance of Bailey when she says, “of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God. My pretty Black brother was my Kingdom Come” (Angelou, p. 26).

It is interesting that participation in church never created a connection between Angelou and God. Nor did the church context create an attachment parallel for her. But it was Bailey that was Maya’s salvation. Angelou’s family context with her parents was one of disengagement. They were divorced and living separately. They did provide for Maya’s physical needs but she was a foreigner in their midst. Positive cohesion did suffer. Maternal and paternal disengagement is extreme.

Throughout the story the mother demonstrates a mixture of engagement and disengagement. The mother’s disengagement is demonstrated when Maya is raped at age 8 years by the mother’s boyfriend. Maya’s mother lived in the same house with a pregnant daughter for eight months before being informed of the pending event.

The father’s disengagement is demonstrated during Maya’s summer visit when she disappeared and lived in a junkyard for the last month before returning to her mother in San Francisco. Why Maya’s father did not make effort to locate the girl or inform the mother of her disappearance remains an unaddressed mystery. A “disengaged family,” is indifferent and uninvolved. They cannot provide help or support. They are broken.

Maya suffered a tragic rape at an early age by a parent figure who should have been safe. Maya suffered deep emotional distress resulting from the event. The event prompted a return to Stamps. She remained silent, only talking to her brother Bailey for many months. She received no professional support to help her recover. Yet she did recover. In Maya’s case a few factors combined to aid her recovery. Drawing from “Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal,” we learn that trauma is like a dog bite.  You must push into the dog bite to force the dog to gag. If you pull away your hand is ripped. You need to get the child to place of safety. You need to experience feelings of trauma and recover and return to safety. The next step is to tell the story before, during, and after. “What is sharable is bearable” (Section Five: Healing Trauma. Video Series: “Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal.” Santa Barbara Graduate Institute Center for Clinical Studies and Research & Neurons 2 Neighborhoods).

We see this same pattern in Maya Angelou’s case. She journeys to the safety of Stamps. Her autobiography is her telling of the story and highlights her own processing of the event while a child. The restoration of a positive self-image was aided by the intentional affirmation of another adult. Mrs. Flowers took specific interest in Maya’s recovery. “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson. (Angelou, p. 109). Mrs. Flowers rescued a traumatized soul and facilitated Maya’s transition to a positive adolescence.

Ultimately it was her relationships that empowered Maya not to extinguish hope. Key nurturing and affirming relationships in Maya’s life were the markers of her resilience. Maya’s real family was defined by allegiance. “The allegiances I owed at this time in my life would have made very strange bedfellows: Momma with her solemn determination, Mrs. Flowers and her books, Bailey with his love, my mother and her gaiety, Miss Kirwin and her information, my evening classes of drama and dance” (Angelou, p. 233).  Maya against the odds emerged from a chaotic, tragic, and disadvantage childhood to become the balanced, poet laureate who is role model to a generation.

Developmental science falls short of predictive cause and effect. The scenario of Maya’s life story would not return a positive prediction from the various theories associated with positive development. The better understanding begins with examination of the ecosystems that nurture resilience and hope.

Transformation and metamorphosis remain scientific mysteries. Science is great at cataloging and measuring the before and after states. What has changed? And what is the same? These seem measurable in the human context. But why the change occurred is difficult to comprehend. Applying the learnings from early childhood attachment theory returns a deterministic message with respect to negative outcomes. Neglect at early ages results in social deformity. But looking at the Maya Angelou case we can say, “not always.” We are better at understanding the factors for a negative outcome but we are challenged in our understanding of positive and transformational outcomes.

In Maya Angelou’s case she internalized an understanding of hope and dignity that defied her circumstance. Her love for the significant others in her life seemed to anchor her in a stream of hope and shielded her from despair.


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