“The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”

Three strong black women stand out in this first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography: Momma, the grandmother Angelou lived with when she was a child; Vivian, Angelou’s mother; and Angelou herself, a bookish, sensitive child who has to grow up quickly.

When her parents’ marriage founders, Angelou, then three years old, and her brother Bailey, four, are sent off to live with Momma in Stamps, Arkansas. They arrive, a little bewildered, but are soon taken under Momma’s wing. The children move between Momma and Vivian over the course of years.

Momma runs the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, where the children work after school. Their uncle Willie, who was hurt during the war, lives with them. This was the Deep South in the 1930s, when segregation and lynching were facts of life. “High points in Stamps were usually negative: droughts, floods, lynching and death.” Angelou paints a picture of a community that was close, surrounded by rampant racism.

Momma is a formidable woman: someone who can navigate the minefield of dealing with white people. But she is not a woman to be pushed around. When a white dentist to whom Momma has lent money without interest when he needed it refuses to treat Angelou’s toothache because he doesn’t treat blacks, Momma is furious. She marches into his office and demands 10 dollars in interest for her loan. He protests but Momma holds her ground—his outrageous behaviour doesn’t qualify him for favours, as far she can see. He hands the money over, and Momma uses it to take Angelou to the coloured dentist.

When Angelou is eight and living with her mother in St. Louis, Vivian’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, who seems gentle enough on the surface, rapes her. When her family finds out they have him arrested. Angelou’s description of the court scene reflects the confusion an eight-year-old feels about rape, worried that she might have been partly to blame. It is heart-breaking.

Vivian comes through as a strong woman, a card player who can hold her own with any man. She believes in letting her children make their own choices and is generally supportive of their decisions. Vivian hopes “for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” So when she finds out that Angelou, in her final year of high school, is pregnant, she takes it in her stride.

The racism is pervasive. At the graduation ceremony in her school in Stamps, a white man gives a patronizing speech to the students that clearly implies that the real promise of the nation lies in the town’s white school. “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even on it) would try to be Jesse Owens and Joe Louises.”

But persistence can sometimes pay off. In Oakland, California, faced with a hostile white female streetcar conductor, Angelou decides that, come hell or high water, she is going to become a streetcar conductor. Never mind that no black woman had ever held that job before. Encouraged by Vivian, she refuses to accept defeat, in spite of several rejections until finally, the company gives up and hires her.

This is a powerful story, poignant, funny at times and well-observed. Angelou writes beautifully, whether she is describing pain or just the beauty of a perfect moment. It is a classic, and if you haven’t already read it, you should. Angelou is not only a great writer, but she was also a civil rights activist, and in this book, she combines the two, never hectoring or lecturing, but merely telling us how it was.

And is.