I have begun at the wrong end of Maya Angelou’s six-part autobiography. I had read excerpts from the first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but, for no reason in particular, never managed to read it in its entirety, or any of the four books that led to this final installment. So it is here, at the dénouement of Maya’s story, that I begin my walk through her life. But this is not as unnatural an approach as I first feared it might be.
In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Maya as writer and I as reader are reflecting on her life from where she stands now, in the age and wisdom she now possesses. She does not become entangled in bitter memories or personal victories; rather, she leads me, a complete stranger, cleanly through the bitterest and most amazing parts of her life with such grace that there was no need for analysis, commentary or justification. I had not met her before, but she told me all that I needed to know in order to feel as though I wasn’t at all intruding on a story that had begun long ago without my awareness.
Maya’s strength as a black woman, as a mother, as an artist, is palpable and infectious. The sturdy poetry of her voice lead me through the death of Malcolm X, then of Dr Martin Luther King, during perhaps one of the most turbulent eras in recent American history. In reading this piece of her life, I could not but think, if she can survive that—rape, racism, death, desolation—and come out dancing, what can’t be achieved? The story of Maya’s life taught me that it’s not about surviving. Survival is the bare minimum of existence, and it is nowhere near enough. We are not meant to just come out of life alive; we are meant to be in the thick of it, singing and dancing and living.
Maya is the bold, black woman-conscience I think I’ve always been lacking; I can hear her voice in my mind and treat my troubles with it, pull myself back onto my feet or down off my pedestal with it. A single perspective in the beautiful, chaotic weave of feminine experience, A Song Flung Up to Heaven is one end of a thread I intend to trace to its origin. I could call the story of Maya Angelou’s life ‘uplifting’ but that would do her so little justice. She explains it best in the titles she chose for herself: hers is a story that begins with a caged bird singing and ends in song, free, flung toward the skies.
Review by Vanessa Yuille