Ritual in Maya Angelou's 'Caged Bird'

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (1928-2014). (Scott Eells/Getty Images)

Born in St. Louis and then reared by her grandmother in the segregated community of Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou overcame great adversities in her "roller-coaster life" to become a successful writer, dancer, singer, and African-American activist. The passages here have been drawn from Chapter 22 of the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

In these paragraphs, Angelou recalls the first funeral that she attended as a child, that of Mrs. Florida Taylor, a neighbor who had left young Maya a "yellow brooch." The ritual that Angelou describes also marked the girl's first recognition of her own mortality.

A Passage From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings* (1969)

by Maya Angelou

The mourners on the front benches sat in a blue-serge, black-crepe-dress gloom. A funeral hymn made its way around the church tediously but successfully. It eased into the heart of every gay thought, into the care of each happy memory. Shattering the light and hopeful: "On the other side of Jordan, there is a peace for the weary, there is a peace for me." The inevitable destination of all living things seemed but a short step away. I had never considered before that dying, death, dead, passed away, were words and phrases that might be even faintly connected with me.
But on that onerous day, oppressed beyond relief, my own mortality was borne in upon me on sluggish tides of doom.
No sooner had the mournful song run its course than the minister took to the altar and delivered a sermon that in my state gave little comfort. Its subject was, "Thou art my good and faithful servant with whom I am well pleased." His voice enweaved itself through the somber vapors left by the dirge. In a monotonous tone he warned the listeners that "this day might be your last," and the best insurance against dying a sinner was to "make yourself right with God" so that on the fateful day He would say, "Thou art my good and faithful servant with whom I am well pleased..."
Mr. Taylor and the high church officials were the first to file around the bier to wave farewell to the departed and get a glimpse of what lay in store for all men. Then on heavy feet, made more ponderous by the guilt of the living viewing the dead, the adult church marched up to the coffin and back to their seats. Their faces, which showed apprehension before reaching the coffin, revealed, on the way down the opposite aisle, a final confrontation of their fears. Watching them was a little like peeping through a window when the shade is not drawn flush. Although I didn't try, it was impossible not to record their roles in the drama.
And then a black-dressed usher stuck her hand out woodenly toward the children's rows. There was the shifty rustling of unreadiness but finally a boy of fourteen led us off and I dared not hang back, as much as I hated the idea of seeing Mrs. Taylor. Up the aisle, the moans and screams merged with the sickening smell of woolen black clothes worn in summer weather and green leaves wilting over yellow flowers. I couldn't distinguish whether I was smelling the clutching sound of misery or hearing the cloying odor of death.
It would have been easier to see her through the gauze, but instead I looked down on the stark face that seemed suddenly so empty and evil. It knew secrets that I never wanted to share.

*'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography, was published by Random House in 1970. It is also available in a Random House paperback edition (2009).