I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everyone’s dream of what was right with the world.
In the prologue, Maya expresses how she always understood that in her world, white equals good and black equals bad. As a child, she dreams of subduing her African features because she wants to be beautiful. As she grows older, she realizes that her dark, kinky hair doesn’t limit her but her racial background does. Maya’s journey in the memoir brings her to the realization that she has other characteristics more important than hair texture or skin color. Maya grows as a person to realize that even if she doesn’t look like a stereotypical white woman, she too has worth.
He told me often, “Ritie, don’t worry ‘cause you ain’t pretty. Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse. You smart. I swear to God. I rather have you a good mind than a cute behind.”
In St. Louis, Uncle Tommy becomes the first person to pay attention to Maya’s thought processes and commend her intelligence. All her life, Maya has been focused on her appearance, wanting to look white or at least have straighter hair or other features characteristic of white children. While Uncle Tommy confirms Maya’s impression of herself as unattractive, he points out her intelligence, and that characteristic far outweighs all others to do well in life. Uncle Tommy makes Maya consider that she has other, more meaningful identities available to her.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Maya’s initial visit to Mrs. Flowers’ home feels like a revelation to her, both in terms of literature and language and, just as importantly, in terms of engendering self-respect and pride. Long accustomed to being defined by her relationship to someone else, even Maya views herself as an adjunct to other members of her family. And in Maya’s own mind, she never measures up to them. Now for the first time, another human has seen Maya as an individual with a unique voice, gifts, and talents. The experience represents an important early step on Maya’s journey to self-realization.
I don’t think she understood half of what she was saying herself, but, after all, girls have to giggle, and after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl.
Maya explains how a new friendship makes her feel. When she is 11 years old, Maya makes her first friend, Louise, and reclaims some of the girlhood that she lost when Mr. Freeman raped her. Maya has hardly spoken since that violent act, erroneously believing that she caused his death because she lied about the assault. Since her family refused to talk about what happened, Maya internalized her guilt, which prematurely aged her. With Louise, however, Maya has found a kindred spirit, a playful girl who doesn’t know about her haunted past. Having this supportive relationship gives Maya back her identity as a child.