Angelou's "Remedy of Hope"

April 4: On this day in 1928 Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, as Marguerite Johnson. As a child she got the nickname "Maya" ("mine") from her brother; she chose the "Angelou" later, an adaptation of her first husband's name. The title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first and most famous volume of her autobiography, she took from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore….

Angelou says that her remarkable and varied life—prostitute, dancer, actor, writer, activist, educator, academic—has been made possible by a "remedy of hope" forged from reading, courage, and "insouciance." The reading began early, as a way to combat the troubles inflicted on her early years—her parents' divorce, racism, rape at the age of eight, five years of mute withdrawal, motherhood at sixteen. The courage is chronicled throughout all six volumes of the autobiography, for example in her decision to return to America from Ghana to work with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (and her determination to carry on after their murders, King's on this day in 1968). Among the episodes of insouciance is this encounter between Angelou and her Ghanaian "husband," a demanding type who followed her to Los Angeles despite her forewarnings. After they returned from the movies one night, she made dinner while he stood frowning in the living room "like a Yoruba carving":

"Why can't we be like them?"

"Like whom?"

"Those two actors in the film."

"Doris Day and Rock Hudson?"

"I don't know their names, but why can't we be to each other the way they are?"

"Are you serious?"

"Do you think I am playing?"

"Those are actors. They are not real. I mean, the roles are just roles. . . . You want me to become a perky little blond woman? Is that what you want? . . ."

I picked up my car keys and my purse and went into the kitchen. I took the corners of the tablecloth and let the food and plates and silverware and glasses fall down into the center. I dragged the whole thing to the living room.

"Here's dinner if you want it. I'm leaving."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.