The Vacuum of the Seen World by Lisa Locascio
When I was eleven, I stole a copy of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I simply took it. It didn’t seem to belong to anyone in particular. The unusually substantive memory that I was mocked for even then fails, oddly, to retrieve the exact location where I found it in my middle school. The edition had a peach-taupe cover decorated with vines, the title printed in an elegant, vaguely Eastern script, and above the author’s name in block letters: MAYA ANGELOU. Beside was a photograph of the woman herself, smiling in hoop earrings and a black garment with a regal gold neckline. I liked the looks of it. I had heard the title before. I put it in my backpack and walked out of the school.
Although I had by that point devoured my father’s dog-eared first edition of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, I wasn’t a habitual thief. But books were the coin of my personal realm, a currency of inestimable worth in which I believed myself privileged to trade. It was unthinkable to leave one unread. At home, I settled on one of the high chairs at the breakfast bar in my kitchen, turned on the television—I liked to have some noise in the background while I did homework, a quirk that drove my dad nuts—and began. The first lines, with the lilting and clear cadence of speech, made no allowances for failures of understanding.
“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…
I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.
Other things were more important.”
Like all children, I was fundamentally morbid. On the physical cusp of an adolescence whose mindset had arrived early, I was hesitant to completely abandon the YA section of my local bookstore, with its comforting wall of colored pencil cover illustrations and prescriptive titles. But I was drawn to representations of suffering, which seemed uniquely authentic to me, passages to the heart of human existence. Before I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I had been preoccupied with American Indian captivity narratives, and before that with stories of children in wartime: The Diary of Anne Frank and its whole subcanon of Holocaust-themed children’s books, of course, but also Zlata’s Diary, a Bosnian girl’s account of the siege of Sarajevo, and the morose Dear America series, a handsomely bound collection of fictional diaries chronicling American girls surviving various plights.
In school I learned that history was a timeline of recurrent oppression and violence. These concepts were presented on a scale of moral absolutism: slavery was bad, emancipation good; genocide was bad, liberation good, etc. If we were morally upright, the subtext was, our thoughts and actions too would be good. My Civil War-focused fourth grade curriculum required a coffee table book of photographs of Abraham Lincoln; in fifth grade, there was the Multicultural Unit, which entailed reading three YA novels about people different from ourselves. As broad and inflected with ‘90s optimism as these curricula now seem, they did their job well. When I got to college, I was shocked to discover how many of my classmates still believed that Christopher Columbus had “discovered” America. But I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was the first book that gave me an emotional understanding of the complex and often hidden tenets of the invisible force that has given me, a white child of privilege, many hands up in life: structural racism.
Angelou spent her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, under the care of her grandmother, called Momma, an indomitable figure of great wisdom and depth. I recognized Momma; like my own mother, she was strong and smart and would do anything to protect her children. But so much else was foreign. In school I had learned the basics of Jim Crow culture and the injustices of pre-Civil Rights Era milieu, but the enjambed words Angelou used to describe the two categories of white people in Stamps were utterly new to me: “whitefolks,” her catchall for the intolerant and terrifyingly volatile white population of Stamps, and “powhitetrash,” which specifically delineated uneducated whites living in poverty, many of them Momma’s tenants.
Early in the book, a group of powhitetrash girls enact what Angelou calls “the most painful and confusing experience I had ever had with my grandmother.” Angelou, then called Marguerite, has just raked the red dirt in front of Momma’s store, drawing “half-moons carefully, so that the design stood out clearly and mask-like.” She and her grandmother stand admiring her work for a few moments before the girls appear to ape and mock Momma, who with resilient dignity begins to sing a hymn “so slow and the meter so strange that she could have been moaning.” Angelou thinks of going for the family shotgun but refuses to heed her grandmother’s repeated orders to go inside. “I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors were confined to their roles.”
Then the oldest powhitetrash girl does a handstand:
“She had on no drawers. The slick pubic hair made a brown triangle where her legs came together. She hung in the vacuum of that lifeless morning for only a few seconds, then wavered and tumbled. The other girls clapped her on the back and slapped their hands. Momma changed her song to “Bread of Heaven, bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
I read these words in 1997, nearly thirty years after the book’s 1969 publication. I was in sixth grade. I lived in a white stone house in River Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, with my parents and younger sister. We had a dog and several cats. After school I attended swim team practice and flute lessons. For fun, I went to my friends’ houses or had them over to mine. We ate cookies from crinkly plastic packages, played Nintendo 64, and read each other’s journals. My family took ski vacations in the winter and tropical vacations in the spring.
My experience of childhood could not have been further removed from Maya Angelou’s, but the power of her writing brought me ineluctably into “the vacuum of that lifeless morning,” and the strength of her compassion taught me that the victims of structural racism were manifold. Not only young Marguerite and her grandmother and her disabled uncle and her brother Bailey and her absent parents and the whole black population of Stamps suffered its cruelties; so too did the powhitetrash girls, whom Angelou had the greatness of spirit to identify as “actors confined to their roles.” All of the whitefolks were as destroyed by their own reckless hatred as their victims. The hideous violent power of unspoken racial codes was plain in that “girl’s brown triangle” of “slick pubic hair,” the sight itself a visceral insult that Momma could no more rebuke than the girl herself could wholly comprehend.
The image of the girl’s bared crotch stayed with me for a long time. I borrowed Angelou’s language in my own early attempts at fiction, trying to describe my own vacuums. They were always slacker and less airtight than hers.
When news of Maya Angelou’s death broke, my friend Dagmar van Engen posted a remembrance on Facebook:
In ninth grade, my mother took me out of English class while my classmates were reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because she objected to its portrayal of sex (she meant rape). Conservative white parents like mine sometimes use the excuse of “sexual content” to police the teaching of novels that tackle systemic racism seriously in public schools (Sherman Alexie, anyone?); if their paranoias are not a measure of beautiful and dangerous literature, I’m not sure what is. Rest in power, Maya Angelou.
Dagmar’s post reminded me that I was lucky that I even got to read Angelou’s memoir. The previous year, during our Multicultural Unit, my best friend’s mother had mounted a campaign to ban Fran Leeper Buss’s Journey of the Sparrows, a novel about undocumented immigrants fleeing El Salvadorian Civil War. Her quest to banish it from our school was inspired by my enthusiastic retelling of the plot in her kitchen; I really loved that book, too.
Thankfully, my friend’s mother failed. No one with any authority over me ever told me there was a book I couldn’t read. After I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I picked up Naked Lunch.
I found Maya Angelou’s voice at a time when I sought perspectives through a process like depth sounding, listening for echoes and resonances that could take my understanding of the world deeper and further. From Angelou I learned that empathy—not intelligence or morals or abstract goodness—that determined a person’s worth. I learned that it was possible to name and decry the sinister cruelties, erasures, and exclusions that make the world. Not just possible: If I was any kind of human being, she taught me, it was my responsibility.
–Lisa Locascio’s writing has appeared in The Believer, n+1, Santa Monica Review, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She recently completed a novel, Jutland Gothic.