Book review, Marcus Clark
This is an autobiographical account of a young black girl growing up in the American South during the 1930s and 40s. Maya lived with her grandmother for some years. During this time the grandmother owned a grocery shop for blacks. Not only ran it, but made it profitable even during the depression. They were not rich by white standards, but were close to it by black standards. During the depression the grandmother lent money to a white dentist, which allowed him to keep his practice. But ten years later he refused to treat Maya, saying, “. . . I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”
Maya, who relates the events in a style like a novel, was highly intelligent, reading classics before she was ten years old. When she transferred to a school in San Francisco she jumped a whole academic year. She frequently uses descriptive expressions: “He was choosing words the way people hunt for shells.”
Her story is one of hardship, poverty, violence. Maya was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend when eight years old. When the abuse was discovered, the rapist was murdered, probably by relatives. This caused Maya to feel responsible for his murder, leading to a period of muteness and guilt.
The circumstances she lived in were not extraordinary for African Americans because many African Americans (Negroes, in those days) lived with extreme poverty, violence, and discrimination.
But Maya was articulate, persistent, intellectual, and creative, enabling her to relate her life story so white people could begin to understand what life was like for African Americans. Maya lived a very active life, as an actress, singer, dancer, she spent several years working in West Africa as a journalist. Back in America, she joined the Civil Rights Movement working tirelessly to promote improvements for African Americans. Maya refused to accept the limits put on her life because of her colour. What hurt her most, was the belief assigned to her and her race, of being fit only to serve white people. Her story, is the story of African Americans in America.
Maya wrote seven autobiographies, three books of essays, plays, movies, and TV shows during a fifty year period. She was at the vanguard of raising the artistic and political status of African Americans.
This is the first of her autobiographies, finishing at the age of seventeen.