Her most famous work took its title from “Sympathy,” a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. And it seems fitting, here just two days after Maya Angelou's death at the age of 86, to recall some of what the poet said:
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore — When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings — I know why the caged bird sings!”
It is not difficult to imagine why Maya Angelou saw herself in those words, and she chose “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” as the title of the celebrated 1969 memoir that would make her famous. Black girl, born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis to parents whose interest in her might best be described as sporadic, coming of age during the Great Depression, an early childhood in the soul-crushing segregation of tiny Stamps, Ark., raped as a child by her mother's boyfriend, rendered mute for years afterward by the experience, an unwed mother at 17, briefly and unsuccessfully a prostitute not long after that. Did circumstance and happenstance ever leave any bird more effectively caged?
And did any bird ever beat its wings against its bars to greater effect? In the process, Maya Angelou created herself. Not that Angelou — the first name was a childhood nickname bestowed by her older brother, the surname taken, slightly altered, from one of her husbands — was unique in this. To the contrary, the history of American popular culture is liberally strewn with acts of self-creation, works of will by people who were able to imagine themselves beyond the limiting constraints of their lives.
But what makes Angelou different is not just the fact of her self-creation but the depth and breadth of it. Indeed, a listing of her achievements and accomplishments is so long and so varied that at some point, if you didn't know better, you'd think somebody was pulling your leg. You'd think they were describing the work of two women. Or three.