Maya Angelou history

What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…

So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out.  First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.

Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:

Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
unnecessary insult.

Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’  – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of  ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.

In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.

As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:

The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.

And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself.  Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary.  It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.

Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002.  He recalls:

She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

Angelou was, Younge writes:

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.

Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993?  Those lines:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

And the concluding verse:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

2 thoughts on “Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

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