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.

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