I first encountered the work of Maya Angelou when I read her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in the library at my high school. I was in ninth grade and though by that time I had read many novels, poems and short stories, and works of autobiographical nonfiction like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” I had never encountered the voice of a black female writer telling a difficult personal story.
In my English classes, it was as if such voices had been held back or, in some way, silenced, as she had been: a young girl fearing that her words had caused the beating death of her mother’s boyfriend, the man who had raped her. I was deeply affected by Angelou’s harrowing and triumphant story, and I could see in her account of how she came to have a voice — a writer’s voice — something of my own experience.
In my own home, I was silenced by another kind of fear. For years, my stepfather had been tormenting me whenever my mother was away from home. Sometimes he would come into my room and make me pack my suitcase, telling me that I was stupid, that he was going to commit me to what was then called “the Georgia Mental Health and Retardation Center.” With my bag in the car, he would drive around Atlanta for what seemed like hours as I cried; when he decided I had been punished enough, he would take me back home, warning me not to tell my mother. As I got older, he began threatening to commit me to the home for juveniles who had gotten into trouble with the law.
In all those years, I never told my mother any of what he was doing to me. Perhaps I feared that speaking up about it would make it worse, that he might begin to hit me as he hit her, or that she would wear the evidence of my words on her battered face. I know now that this is the kind of silence that abusers need to keep doing what they do.
Looking back on it now, I see what a crucial moment it was for me to come across Maya Angelou’s book in the stacks — how necessary it was for me to begin to speak in some way against the silence of what was unspoken in that house.
I had been given a journal for my birthday — one of those that has a small lock on the front — and I’d begun to keep a record of my days. When I realized that my stepfather had picked the lock and was reading it regularly, I began to think that nothing I wrote could be private, so I started writing with the awareness that he would see it. I wrote directly to him, cursing him, knowing that for him to challenge me on what I had written would be for him to admit what he was doing: invading that private world of words I was setting down on paper.
I see now that it was a necessary act of defiance to carry on a difficult conversation with him that could not be spoken aloud. He became, in this way, my first audience. I was becoming a writer.
Maya Angelou’s belief in the power of words had taken hold of me.
Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who concluded her second term this month as the U.S. poet laureate.
Former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey: The voice of Maya Angelou gave rise to others