The first time I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings I was in my mid-20’s and taking a night class at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: African-American Women’s Literature. Even though I’d been an avid (even obsessive) reader since grade school, my enjoyment of books was always something that felt separate from school, personal, something I did by myself and kept to myself. Honestly, I barely recall the books and poems we were forced to read in school, including high school. I say “forced” for a reason. As much as I loved books, as much as I loved reading anything (comic books, rhyming books, the lyrics of songs tucked inside album covers, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Little House series, even the backs of cereal boxes!) I never had teachers that inspired me to think about the stories I read. When we talked about books in class, I was afraid to raise my hand – I’d given the ‘wrong’ answer to many times and felt humiliated. Taking tests and writing papers was a chore of memorizing for the sake of memorizing, and nothing more.
Fast forward about 10 years to the Univ of MO. I signed up for The Literature of African-American Women, which gave a reading list of books I’d heard of but never read. We met one night a week for 3 hours. The second week of class, when we’d finished 1/2 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the professor had us put our chairs in a circle to promote discussion. This was when I noticed I was one of 3 white women in a class of 25 — and we all sat together, like were in some kind of pod. Discussing this first book was tough. Each time one of the 3 of us made a comment, we were challenged by several black classmates, telling us how we could not possibly understand the story, its themes, the characters’ perspectives, etc… because of our whiteness. I remember wanting to cry on the way home. But the week went by, I finished the book, and came back for week three of class. The professor asked, once again, for us to put our chairs in the circle. But this time made the 3 of us to change seats. By the end of that 3 hours, merely by changing our seats, the class opened up and became more civil. By the time the semester was over, by the time we’d read and discussed Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, we were meeting before class for dinner or coffee and getting to know each other.
This was the first literature class where the professor and my classmates made assigned “school books” powerful and important, where there could be many right answers, and where even the wrong answers had grains of truth in them that sparked the most interesting and challenging conversations. As I go back now and reread Maya Angelou’s great book, I am not only appreciating the great storytelling and poetry of her prose, but also remembering all those smart women I met 20 years ago in that Univ of MO class, and how much we learned about these great writers, their books, and each other.