When I first encountered Maya Angelou and her work, I was in 5th grade. I was still rediscovering my love of reading, lost to our flawed education system, and didn’t have very many works and authors I found relatable. There were, in fact, very few authors that showed any relatability or similarities. I had been gifted a book of famous black women if memory serves, and while flipping through aimlessly I came across a quote; “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” It was at the end of a paragraph tucked into the corner of the page. I remember feeling starry-eyed and awed, flipping to see what name was attached and finding Maya Angelou. It was here that the first roots of fascination took hold.

Her work followed me through 6th grade where I was given Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou, a collection of both her better known and more underappreciated works. We had a poetry unit in English Language Arts that lasted most of the month of April and spilling into May. We looked into the lives and works of many poets, but my attention settled onto the life of Angelou, whose body of work spoke to the sadness, grief, and loneliness of my then 11-year-old self. 

“And Still I Rise”, published in 1978, being the one we touched on and analyzed in class, has the clearest memory. It reminded me of the quote I previously mentioned. It speaks of perseverance and an unwillingness to fold to a world determined to squash you. For all that middle schoolers are not (kind, confident, comfortable), one thing they are is defiant, almost to the point of obstinance at times. They push through one of the most uncomfortable and unpleasant times in a person’s life and come out on the other side, changed but still them. This poem speaks to that in a broader sense, encompassing not just coming of age but personhood.

Continuing the pursuit and analysis of Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou, there were two more poems that caught my fancy. “Caged Bird” being the first and better remembered of the two. Published in 1983, it describes the contrasting experiences of two birds, with the aforementioned caged bird being one, before ending with the haunting line, “for the caged bird sings of freedom.” For an 11-year-old these words had been interpreted as a longing to be free of school and homework and other such obligations, but a decade later these final two lines speak to a different longing than they once did. 

The second poem is only remembered by the feelings it evoked in me and the title, “When Great Trees Fall”, published in 1990. This was a time when my family had suffered a great loss and this work reflected the ripple this loss caused to me and the people around me. It was a comfort in the most important way to the 11-year-old who had just lost someone dear to her. To know that the emotions she felt were acceptable and she was not alone in the feeling.

In my senior year of high school, we were set to read the first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which recounted her first seventeen years. Unfortunately, lockdown started before we were given the chance to delve into the work. I’ve since had the chance to read the beginning. I haven’t quite finished it yet as I’m a rather slow reader. 🙂