angelou

Angelou’s St. Louis

Working on trying to get back into bike riding but it just hasn’t happened a lot since my vacation. I’ve gone on some but just haven’t seemed to find the time or energy to actually write about them. It’s more the latter. I’ve been very lazy when it comes to writing. So instead of writing about the entirety of of a ride, I’m just going to choose bits and pieces and go from there.

About a week after getting back from Colorado I was happy to get back on my bike. I went out to Lafayette Square and started there and then headed out west through The Gate District – which in itself isn’t that inspiring. It’s like the polar opposite of Lafayette Square architecturally.

mayaangelou-bookThe reason why I am writing this in the first place is that recently I started reading Maya Angelou’s I know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It occurred to me that on this same bike ride I found the house that she lived in during her rather short stay in St. Louis. The house is still there but the place she described in the book, the neighborhood as it was then is gone. The house she lived in was a typical St. Louis red brick two story, 2 bays, side entrance, flat roof with a simple cornice (actually looks new and not the original). Next door on both sides are newer houses. They have vinyl siding and look like basic suburban houses – wood frame, vinyl, prominent garages, front yards, driveways. So much of this neighborhood is like this. It’s mostly suburban housing with modest older St. Louis brick houses peppered throughout. There is no brick canyon or coal soot in the air and settling on everything.

In the book she describes coming up from a very small Arkansas town where everyone was self-sufficient and lived off the land, hard work, and community. When she lived in Stamps, her grandmother whom she stayed with owned a store but was very thrifty, strict, and religious. She made the children’s cloths herself, they canned their own food, people raised their own food and helped each other out. Raising the children was a community act where it wasn’t just her grandma that raised her, she had uncles, neighbors, people from her church. I don’t want to make this sound like it was ideal life cause Arkansas was extremely racist and segregated and just giving a white person the wrong look could give you the noose.

In St. Louis everything about day-to-day life was different. She describes the noise of the streetcars, busses, buying food at stores, buying ready to wear cloths. She described the differences in the schools, how people talked. St. Louis to her might as well of been New York City. Life was fast paced, people seemed less friendly. She described the heat (not that Arkansas wasn’t hot). I think there is just something weirdly unique about St. Louis heat. It’s like the heat of a hot brick oven just sprayed down with a water hose. I don’t know what that’s like but I imagine it that way.

I’m not that educated when it comes to Maya Angelou. I’m new to her but not her name. I remember her always being on the Oprah show so I associated her with Oprah Winfrey. I know she’s more than that. I didn’t know of the terrible things that happened to her in St. Louis, in that very house I saw. It was where she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. I don’t blame her mother for what happened. She didn’t know and certainly didn’t take his side when she found out. I think her family life was complicated and everyone just tried to do what was best. Anyway, it almost makes me sick looking at that house. It makes me feel the house is full of bad mojo.

maya angelou houseI do imagine that experience and St. Louis left a giant mark on her and will greatly influence her life and who she eventually became as an adult. When I saw her on television later in life she was very deliberate and clear with her words, spoke of wisdom and grace. I think the book was written in the late 1960s and I get that feeling from the book too – she was wise beyond her years. The book is very easy to read and engaging. It’s told in a way that I feel like she is telling me a story – actually speaking. Also she doesn’t seem to write about those horrible things or a “hard life” in a self-pitying way. It was from a perspective of just trying to understand what she went through at the time and how she saw the world through the eyes of an African American woman but also as a woman, or as a child. The book isn’t all hardship. There is humor and the showing of great courage and resilience. It’s about growing up and the shaping of her life.

Some of the things she write of sure remain true today. She speaks of her grandmother or black mother’s fearing for their sons. Just being late could strike fear because black men could be killed and the authorities didn’t care. Black men were lynched, killed in horrendous ways just for looking at a white woman “wrong” or “back talking” or if someone just felt like it – for shits and giggles. She watched young white children that were more poor, less educated than they were try to humiliate her grandma. It must have been something hard for a child to watch and understand. Also lets not pretend this only happened in Arkansas or the south. These things were apparent in St. Louis and more northern cities too. It seems to me sometimes the segregation in St. Louis or other northern cities was just as bad and sometimes worse.

These were not things I thought about on my bike ride. I just saw Angelou as a famous person that spent some time in St. Louis and I saw her house as just a small curiosity. Now I see that place not just as physical brick and mortar, but as a place that elicits emotion and holds stories that made an indelible mark on a human being. Some places aren’t just great cause of great craftsmanship, or great ornamentation, or a great architect designed them. They are great because of the people that lived there, their experiences and how those experiences would shape a person’s life.