I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was listed in my YouTube feed shortly after Diahann Carroll passed. Initially, I was hesitant to watch the film. I knew it was about Maya Angelou’s childhood and took place in the 1930’s/1940’s. However, I was afraid of witnessing sexual assault and lynchings.
My first thought was, “I don’t want to watch our [Black] trauma. I don’t want to see our [Black] murders or violations.”
I knew both Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan was alive and well. I knew Black Southerners were living in constant fear. I didn’t want to go to that place mentally or emotionally.
But I decided to watch because I could learn something. If I acknowledged the challenges the protagonist faced and kept an open mind to identify her triumphs, there was joy to be seen. As an avid reader, writer and public speaker, I wanted to learn how Marguerite found her voice. In addition, I wanted to support Angelou’s literature and legacy.
So I watched.
And I’m glad I did.
As a millennial, I couldn’t imagine existing during that era. I couldn’t imagine one’s brilliance, creativity, curiosity and intelligence trying to be stifled by your family and society because, “Your head’s getting too big.”
I knew Black parents wanted their children to succeed but they wanted them to stay alive more than anything. They were afraid their children could be assaulted or murdered for expressing their desire to simply tap into their greatness. But I could only imagine a child feeling conflicted, confused, angry and trapped.
Marguerite’s coming-of-age experience was profound. She was learning to be her unapologetic self – blunt, honest and creative. Marguerite found her voice again. She reclaimed her power.
During the film’s ending, Marguerite’s school superintendent gave a brief graduation speech regarding his expectations for the boys to pursue basketball and the girls to pursue home economics.
I was flabbergasted. So you’re telling me I did homework, took tests to only dribble a ball and solely become a stay-at-home mom?
How simple minded.
I loved how Marguerite saw through the bullshit and didn’t let others’ expectations taint her gift to speak and write.
It made me rethink fear being a Black woman in today’s America. Though there are boxes society expects me to fit, there is more flexibility to immerse yourself in multiple interests and passions. Hence, side-hustling. Being multi-dimensional is more celebrated versus fitting one label.
Realistically, no one does. Identity isn’t simple. Identity is layered, beautiful, complex, and flawed. It’s the unique perfection and image in which we were made.
This is what I learned from Ms. Marguerite Johnson’s story.
What makes you unique?