Why Stories Matter- or How Maya Angelou saved me

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” -Franz Kafka

Maybe it was a conspiracy, an intervention, a suggestion from a conference of elders, an anointing of serendipity but there were hands that reached into the well of despair and grabbed me before I hit the bottom.

In the early 1980s you may have seen me, as I wandered through a west end Toronto neighbourhood, pushing an old-fashioned powder-blue baby carriage. Snuggled inside was my infant daughter, watching a sea of streetlights, streetcar wires, and fluffy clouds float by in the moving skyscape behind my head.

I imagine my expression was changing as quickly as the urban scenery. I was searching for something, and at the same time, something was calling me. Calling me, like when the last uneaten slice of pumpkin pie cries out from the packed refrigerator the night after the holiday feast. I didn’t hear voices, it was more of a feeling, a yearning and to be honest probably at least 50% boredom. To put it in context, this was a time before VCRs, PVRs, personal computers, smart phones, and Netflix. But my mind had grown accustomed to the constant stimulation of school work, and paid work, and the constellation of friends and acquaintances that came with both.

Suddenly the world shifted. It was like living on a different continent, in a different climate, maybe even on a different planet. Although I didn’t live alone (my daughter and I were boarding with a very nice family, and we had our own private room on the top floor of their house) I was living in a very specific and isolating demographic that left me feeling as if I were a tribe of one.

That day, home looked like a ship floating on a sea of books. 

A tribe of one, and in a way I was. I had been the only visibly pregnant teen at my uptown high school. After my daughter’s birth on the last day of grade 12, I watched my friends moving on with their lives. It was nearly impossible for me to join in the last-minute plans that required disposable income, and organizing a babysitter. I had tried out a few “mom and baby groups” only to find that no matter how far I stretched, I couldn’t relate to the struggles of the home-owning, mostly 30-something, first-time-moms that attended.

I don’t remember the date, or what the weather was like, or if a set of chimes clinked when I pushed opened the door. What I remember is the feeling of coming home. That day, home looked like a ship floating on a sea of books. The ship was the laminate flooring beneath my feet, in the middle of the ocean of books that surrounded it. Fittingly, the ship’s captain wore glasses, fortunately, he was welcoming, and kind.

After that Third World Books and Crafts became my destination of choice. There were books there that would have been impossible to find at the library, on topics that I had never heard mentioned – like Black Cowboys. Most often on the way, the sway of the carriage lulled my baby daughter to sleep, allowing me some precious “me-time” and a chance to dive into the shelves without distraction.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Leonard Johnston, who I later learned was actually a co-captain, and co-owner of the store with his wife, Gwendolyn, was always happy to direct me to topics of interest, or make suggestions. Instead of looking at me, like the majority of people I met, and seeing some kind of gullible or promiscuous pariah, he probed further and met me beneath the surface. I think he found an intelligent, curious, open-minded young mother, eager to learn what she needed to fill-in the cavernous gaps in her own Black History education. At the time, I didn’t understand the depth of the need, yet I was intent on gathering the materials needed to build a foundation of knowledge to pass on to my daughter. Knowledge was the platform that would support her as she battled the inevitable waves of discrimination that would come at her from all sides of her “mixed-race” heritage.

Maybe it was a conspiracy, an intervention, a suggestion from a conference of elders, an anointing of serendipity but it was no accident when Mr. Johnson handed me a copy of Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At the time, Ms. Angelou was already a successful author and poet but it was only through reading her autobiography that I discovered she had also been a 17-year-old, unmarried single-mother. That fact alone had not ended her life or her opportunities, and she had refused to be swallowed by the shame of it. Through her words, and her example, I felt her hand reaching down for mine, and pulling me up.

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” – Maya Angelou

To read more about the history and activism of Third World Books and Crafts and Gwendolyn and Leonard Johnson please click here:

https://torontoist.com/2015/02/historicist-third-world-books-and-crafts/

Gratitude:

I want to thank my second-oldest daughter for inspiring this story with her current reading binge. She had me scrolling through my mental Rolodex for a list of my favourite books, which of course includes: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And with that reminiscing, came this story. Thank you also to my oldest daughter, for all her well-timed infant dozing, and being my co-conspirator during our neighbourhood reconnaissance.

And although neither of them are still living, I would like to thank Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnson for all their work creating and holding space in the community for so many decades. And I would like to thank Leonard, particularly for your kindness, especially because this was a time when there was not enough of it in my life.

stack of books
A stack of books with Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” on top of the pile.
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