Stamps, Arkensas is in Southern part of the USA and it became the place where Maya was brought up as a baby. She arrived there with her brother Bailey Johnson when her parents divorced and abandoned the children. It was the 1930s and the world was standing still in Stamps and changing rapidly in other places.
Her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson ran a store in Stamps and was one of the affluent women of color. Despite their easy life, their grandmother did not allow them to be soft. They had a very strict upbringing and frequent encounters with the rod if they slipped up.
Despite this, Maya recalls her childhood as a happy and an eventful one. As long as they keep to the colored section, of course. They are scared of venturing into the 'white' part of town and do not have even a single pleasant interaction with white people.
When Maya is seven years old, her father turns up and takes them to live with their mother, Vivian, in St. Louis. Maya discovers a wealth of new relations. She has a colorful grandmother on her maternal side, Mrs. Baxter. She also has several mean uncles. Her mother is a captivating lady and Maya and Bailey fall instantly in love with their Mother Dear.
Things turn horrid for poor Maya when she is raped by her mother's boyfriend Freeman. This horrific event scars Maya and she retreats into a shell. Once again, they are shunted back to Stamps to their grandmother Henderson. Maya and Bailey stay there till they graduate from the school. They are sent back to live with their mother who has relocated to San Francisco. They are now in their teens and ready for the headier life of a big city.
Maya Angelou is a famous poet first and foremost. She has worn many professional hats in her lifetime, she has written plays, screenplays, poetry, memoires, she has sung and danced. She was a civil rights activist and lectured frequently. She was talked into writing about her life by James Baldwin when she was undergoing depression after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she was closely associated.
The life of young Maya is brought out in vivid detail. Through little Maya growing up under the strict and watchful eye of her grandmother, we also learn about the lives of people who live in the colored part of Stamps. The whites are White and blacks are Black and never the twain do meet. When they do, there is meekness on the faces of the Blacks and condensation or downright meanness on the face of the Whites.
The only thing that pulls the colored young out of the mire of poverty and helplessness is education. The people of Stamps recognize this and make sacrifices to send their young to the best schools they can afford. Maya is a beneficiary of this as she completes her schooling with honors and is ready to face the further challenges that she will face in the big city.
The book touches upon her life till the age of 17. Even so, with her colorful mother and father she sees a lot of life. We do feel sad that she got such a raw deal after being raped as a child. She feels guilty about the incident, instead of feeling victimised. Maya and her brother were put on a train at the ages 3 and 4 to travel alone to Stamps from St. Louis, which sounds cruel now.
Maya writes very little about Mrs. Flowers who had such a major influence on her life when she was all bottled up inside post-rape. Mrs. Flowers helps her out by teaching her to recite poetry and read quality books. Surely she merited more of a mention.
Then there are long passages about her experiences with the Church. I expect they were very important to her as a devout Christian, but in current times they make for a tedious reading, especially to readers who are not too enamored of religion.
But then there is a recounting of the time when a neighbour, Jackson, drops in at dinner-time during a raging storm. He has recently lost his wife and claims to being visited regularly by her ghost. The chapter is a pure delight to read as young Maya is scared and fascinated at the same time. Her grandmother takes the situation in hand and turns Jackson to more practical thoughts.
All the people in her life are drawn to perfection, her grandmothers, Henderson and Baxter, her mother, Vivian, her father Bailey Sr. Uncle Willie, Annie Henderson's younger son is a cripple but helps run the store like a tight ship. All these characters stay on with you long after you have put the book down.