Happy Birthday, Dr. Maya Angelou!

Green bird in a cage hanging from a ceiling in front of a gray background.

Photo Credit: Yogi Dwi Mahandi

Note to the Reader: This blog details a story of childhood sexual abuse. We encourage readers to take care of themselves and honor their limits when reviewing potentially triggering information.

There are few figures who have left as profound or as impactful of a mark on the modern literary world as Dr. Maya Angelou. Despite coming from difficult beginnings, Dr. Angelou went on to lead an extraordinary life and left behind a body of work that continues to influence poets, readers, and dreamers around the world. Within the sexual violence prevention and education movement, Dr. Angelou remains an important figure for the way she bravely came forward with her story of childhood sexual assault. On Dr. Angelou’s birthday, we will be discussing how her story of survival and triumph not only dispelled stigma against sexual violence, but has helped and continues to help survivors from all walks of life.

In Dr. Angelou’s best-known work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the reader goes on a journey through her life from childhood to 17-years-old. Central to this autobiography’s narrative is the childhood molestation and assault she experienced at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. Despite these events taking place in the 1930s, the patterns of sexual abuse and the consequences of its fallout depicted in this book are still experienced by and recognizable to survivors today. From exploiting a child’s need for physical affection as a grooming tactic to threatening the victim and their loved ones into silence after abuse occurs, the audience is able to identify the struggles that survivors of sexual violence face, particularly if they are children. Another distressing portion of this story is seeing how the adults around Dr. Angelou ultimately failed her childhood self. In the courtroom, a setting which often causes further trauma for the survivor, the defense attorney put Dr. Angelou’s memory into question and argued that the rape had never occurred. The women attending the trial and even at the hospital treating Dr. Angelou had also presented a harmful interpretation of her abuse: “women whispered to me out of blood-red mouths that now I knew as much as they did. I was eight, and grown,” said Dr. Angelou. “Even the nurses in the hospital had told me that now I had nothing to fear. ‘The worst is over for you,’ they had said.” (Angelou 84). This type of response is adultifying a sexual abuse survivor, something that is particularly leveraged towards Black girls and women.

Her abuser was found guilty and, as is the case for many perpetrators, he received an inappropriately light sentence of one year. However, he was beaten to death (implied in the book to be by her older male relatives) before he even served a day of his sentence. Dr. Angelou, feeling responsible for her abuser’s death, retreated into a world of silence for five years. While some adults in her life verbally and physically reprimanded her for this, her silence maintained until a teacher came along who taught her the power of her voice in bringing poetry to life.

In 1969, this once silent girl released her story into the world without shame. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a watershed moment in the public discourse about childhood sexual abuse, and as with any sign of progress, it was met with backlash. It remains one of the most banned books of all time, with critics citing its depiction of child sexual abuse, racism, and  sexuality as reason to keep this book out of the hands of young people. “I find that people who want my book banned have never read a paragraph of my writing,” said Dr. Angelou, “but have heard that I write about a rape. They act as if their children are not faced with the same threats, and that’s terrible.” Her strong belief that anyone old enough to experience violence and prejudice must have the ability to read about it is what kept this story being circulated to the many people who needed it.

One such person was Oprah Winfrey, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “I was that girl raped at nine, who muted the telling of it,” said Winfrey in the foreword of the book. “I understood why Maya Angelou remained silent for years. Each page revealed insights and feelings I had never been able to articulate. I thought, ‘Here’s a woman who knows me, who understands.’ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became my talisman.” Winfrey’s enthusiastic endorsement only further improved the book’s sales and reach. To date, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has sold more than 2 million copies. Lovers and defenders of this autobiography have fought for this book so well that, in 2013, it became, “the second most-taught nonfiction text in US high school English classes.”

Dr. Angelou went on to lead a very full life. She received more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees, wrote seven autobiographies, was lauded by various presidents and public personalities, traveled the world, fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, befriended James Baldwin, sang, composed, acted, danced, directed (she was the first Black woman director), taught, and overall showed the world that there was no limit to what she could do.

While it is true that her legacy spans far beyond one book, this book also deserves special attention for how it changed the world. James Madison University Professor Mollie Godfrey had this to say about the autobiography’s significance:

“Her autobiography was one of the first to speak openly about child sexual abuse and especially groundbreaking to do so from the perspective of the abused child. For centuries Black women writers have been limited by stereotypes characterizing them as hypersexual. Afraid of reinforcing these stereotypes, few were willing to write about their sexuality at all, but Angelou refused to be constrained. She publicly explored her most personal experience without apology or shame.”

For all she did in life and all her books continue to do today, we thank Dr. Angelou and look forward to revisiting her works for their insight, their beauty, and their ever-lasting importance.

RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit www.RALIANCE.org.


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