The 69-year-old TV host spoke candidly about the late poet’s work during her speech at the National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York City on 15 November. While appearing at the event, she revealed how the 1969 book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, held up the “words” to describe “[her] pain and [her] confusion” throughout her teenage years.
“I was 15, I was 15 years old when I read my first diverse book, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the whole world fell away from me,” she said during her speech, as reported by People.
Winfrey specified that at the age of 15, Angelou’s work was the first book she had that featured a main character who was Black. She also described how the book encouraged her to speak out about her experiences of rape as a child.
“That book gave a voice to my silences, my secrets,” she said. “It gave words to my pain and my confusion of being raped at nine years old.”
The author added that before reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she couldn’t find a way to verbally describe how she was sexually abused as a child.
“[I] didn’t know that there was a language, there were words for what had happened to me or that any other human being on earth had experienced it,” she said. “That’s the power of books.”
Over the years, Winfrey has continued to open up about coping with childhood sexual abuse. In her 2021 Apple TV+, The Me You Can’t See, she said that she was raped for years as a child by an older cousin.
“At nine and 10 and 11 and 12 years old, I was raped by my 19-year-old cousin,” she said. “I didn’t know what rape was, I certainly wasn’t aware of the word. I had no idea what sex was, I had no idea where babies came from. I didn’t even know what was happening to me, and I kept that secret.”
She continued: “It’s just something that I accepted, that a girl-child isn’t safe in a world full of men.”
Winfrey added that she discovered the prevalence of child sexual abuse when she opened up her own school for girls in South Africa. There, a student said that she had told her grandmother that she was being “messed with” by her uncle, but that her grandmother chose not to believe her. She also recalled how numerous other girls at the school, in solidarity with the student, then began opening up about their own experiences with sexual assault.
In addition to praising Angelou’s work at the National Book Awards Ceremony, Winfrey has previously spoken out about her friendship with the poet – who died in 2014 at the age of 86. In a post shared to her blog, Oprah Daily, in June, the TV host described some of the things she learned about “ageing and self-acceptance” from Angelou. In the piece, she recalled attending the unveiling of Angelou’s portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“What I realised at the Smithsonian: Her greatest lesson—besides her gems of insight and inspiration—is the way she has approached ageing with such acceptance and assurance,” she wrote. “Several years ago, when I asked her what it was like to turn 80, she said, ‘Baaaby, the 80s are hot! You want to try and make it there if you can.’”
After describing Angelou as “an incredible role model for what getting older can be,” she then shared some of the advice that Angelou gave her. “Be patient with young people, she told us in Washington. Don’t blame or judge them for what they don’t know. Be careful how you speak to them. You were young once, too,” she said, quoting the late writer.
Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at www.rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)