What you need to know:
- Memoir captures the life and times of the electrifying poet in a century of racial segregation.
- The man took advantage of her mother’s absence to molest her, warning that he would kill her brother if she exposed him.
Marguerite Johnson was born in the west coast city of Long Beach in California, to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. Her older brother, Bailey Junior, one year her senior, refused to call her Marguerite and instead called her Mya Sister.
In later years, he shortened it to My, before settling on the name she would use in her writing journey: Maya.
When Maya’s parents terminated their calamitous marriage, their father shipped them to Stamps, Arkansas, by train to his mother. A porter was charged with their welfare.
He alighted from the train the next day in Arizona State and pinned their tickets to Bailey’s inside coat pocket. They wore tags on their wrists with the words ‘To Whom It May Concern’. She was just three and Bailey four.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir by the most electrifying poet of the 20th century, the exemplary Maya Angelou. She paints a brutally truthful picture of the life of black people in the segregation era that coincided with the Great Depression and the Great Migration in the 1930s.
Most blacks were escaping lynching in southern states, including Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana Georgia and Arkansas, where Bailey and her had been sent.
The United States was being crisscrossed thousands of times by frightened black children travelling alone to their parents in northern cities or back to their grandmothers in the southern towns, when the urban north reneged on its economic promises.
Maya and Bailey were received by their grandmother, whom they affectionately called Momma. Momma had married three times, first to Maya’s grandfather, Mr Johnson, who left and neglected her at the turn of the century, with two young sons to raise.
She then married a Mr Henderson, then a Mr Murphy. Momma was one of the few black people who successfully operated a huge and popular convenience store.
When Maya and Bailey were seven and eight, respectively, their father, Bailey Johnson Senior, drove to Stamps. After his visit, he travelled with them to the gold-rush town of St Louis in Missouri in the Midwest to visit their mother, Vivian Baxter.
The siblings would then live in a big house on Caroline Street with their maternal grandparents for half a year, before their mother moved in with them. Vivian’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, lived with her. He was a tall flabby heavy-set man with a ‘Southern notoriety’.
Vivian was competent in providing for Maya and Bailey. Although she was a nurse by training, she never worked as one. She earned money cutting poker games in gambling parlours late into the night.
A job that required her to work from 8am to 5pm did not please her. Mr Freeman was a foreman in the Southern Pacific yards and often arrived late, reeking of coal, after Vivian had left.
Vivian would sometimes take Maya to sleep with her, when she was frightened, the large bed she shared with Mr Freeman. When she left the house one early morning, Mr Freeman molested Maya.
“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey,” he threatened.
This was the first secret eight-year-old Maya kept from Bailey. Weeks later, when Bailey and his mother were away, Mr Freeman told Maya: “If you scream, I’m gonna kill you. And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey (sic).” He then defiled her.
The pain was so excruciating, Maya writes. “I thought I had died.” She says it was like “the needle giving in because the camel can’t.” When Vivian returned home that evening and discovered her daughter was asleep, she assumed Maya was infected with measles.
Vivian insisted that Maya be bathed and instructed Bailey to change the bedding as she was sweating profusely. When they tried to move her, Maya fought.
Her mother picked her up into her arms as Bailey began to change the sheets, blood-stained panties that Maya had hidden under the mattress fell at his mother’s feet.
Maya was rushed to hospital and Bailey persuaded her to out the perpetrator. He then rushed to his grandparents, who obtained an arrest warrant against Mr Freeman. He was fortunate to be arrested as Maya’s uncles were baying for his blood.
After Mr Freeman’s court case, he was sentenced on paedophile charges to one year and one day in jail never served his sentence. His lawyer had him released to serve a suspended sentence away from prison.
Shortly after, his corpse was discovered by the police, after he was murdered behind a slaughterhouse, purportedly by Maya’s uncles.
The reviewer is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff’s Fitness Centre (@jeffbigbrother).