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Maya Angelou, poet, memoirist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, Calypso singer and dancer in gay clubs in 1950s San Francisco, part of a dance duo with Alvin Ailey, colleague and civil rights worker with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., best friend to James Baldwin, first black Inaugural poet, friend and supporter of lesbians and gay men before it was trendy or popular and when it most mattered–that Maya Angelou died Wednesday morning, May 28 at her home in Winston-Salem, NC. She was 86.
Angelou wrote, “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 always made me feel just a bit cut open. I rarely heard her speak or give an interview without tears coming to my eyes because she never spoke of easy things, even when she was telling a funny story, which was often, because humor and sadness were of a piece for her both in life and in her writing. Angelou had a deep voice and a big, easy laugh and those two things accompanied all her telling, soothing some of the truths she exposed. There was always that blurred dark edge to every tale that is the line most women walk between the world outside and the world inside. The world of second-class-ness that never leaves us, no matter how accomplished or famous or revered one is.
And she was all of those things, she was all of them.
When I read the breaking news alert that she had died, I felt a frisson of loss as if she were my own family–she and her work had always been that much of a steady presence in my life, even if she was on its periphery. She staked that claim for many women, from her “adopted” daughter, Oprah Winfrey, to American high school students reading her for the first time. She was that vibrant, that rich, that fervent, that knowing.
Some writers have that ability to touch places in us that few are able to touch. Angelou was one of those.
She wasn’t a complex writer, but her work had a realness and deceptive simplicity that made it highly accessible to a wide readership. Angelou was prolific and her work was as varied as it was fervid.
Her early work is raw and uneven, but incredibly compelling. You feel bruised and torn after reading it, because it has taken you deep into another place, a hidden place. That was, for many female readers and readers of color, a place we knew well, a place of secrets and lies, torments and too-little retribution. So when Angelou took us there–whether we’d been prepared or not–we were different at the end of it. We had thought it was our place alone and now we knew there were others, had been others all along.
It freed us.
I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in college, in a Women’s Studies course when I was the same age she was when the memoir cuts off–17. It had been published years earlier and was an international best-seller by then and Angelou’s was a well-established voice. Nevertheless, with its open discussion of lesbianism and prostitution and depictions of explicit sexuality, it was a far cry from most of our other assignments. Angelou was not Austen.
Angelou’s was one of the first of the Second Wave feminist memoir to open that secret door of telling that became the foundation for that first generation of lesbian activists of the late 70s and early 80s–myself among them. We were schooled by radical women like Angelou and Audre Lorde, Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison, Gerda Lerner and Julia Penelope, Jill Johnston and Pat Parker, Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker, Germaine Greer and Kate Millet, Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis.
Black and white, straight and lesbian, middle class and poor, educated and self-taught they were that army of brilliant, courageous women we had never had behind us as girls, voices whose breadth and depth, range and strength would bolster us and send us forward to storm the next round of patriarchal battlements.
Maya Angelou was one of those women, those truth-tellers, those passionate, unwavering voices who knew the only thing that stood between us and freedom, us and equality, us and wholeness was our second-class status, the silencing of us because of our sex, the reinforcement of the social constructs of gender that were fake and dangerous and allowed men to treat us like we weren’t fully human.
Angelou was the first to shred the veil between euphemism and raw reality on the topic of rape. Yes, Susan Brownmiller’s seminal book, Against Our Will would tell us the history and statistical analysis of rape and that would be shattering on another level altogether, but what Angelou did was different.
She boldly told her own story. In my faded and underlined paperback copy I have kept all these years since that college class I had written in one margin: She knows. She knows about us. She knows about all of us.
Angelou was raped at seven by her mother’s boyfriend. After she testified against him, he spent a day in prison, before being released on bail. After he was released, he was beaten to death by a group of vigilantes–Angelou believed by her uncles.
The experience terrified her. She stopped speaking, mute from fear. She wrote, “My seven-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him. I thought, my voice killed him. I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…I didn’t speak for nearly six years.”
Those of us who were sexually assaulted as children understood the fear, the shame, the surety that if we told the truth, the world–our world–would split open. Angelou’s words resonated for a generation of women. She had spoken what till then had been unspoken and more–taboo.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details that experience and its aftermath, doing what Mary Daly taught us was vital to all feminist development: dis-covering our own female history.
In doing so, Angelou discovered the truth for millions of women, a truth we were never allowed to say aloud, a truth one in four American girls and countless others worldwide share–the truth of child sexual assault, the truth of rape, the truth that girl children are commodities in literature and porn alike. And of course, in their own homes.
Angelou told us rape happened, it had happened to her, it had happened to us. She told us it had both broken and healed her. She told us that we could be mended and move on and mend others and that activism had many, many faces and ours could be one of them, should be one of them.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn’t just a memoir, or a coming of age tale. It’s a book of lessons for girls and women, regardless of race or class or sexual orientation. One can pull quotes applicable for all women, especially those feeling their Otherness and marginalization and the push to sameness.
In the book Angelou writes, “To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.
Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.”
Yet Angelou is, of course, writing about a particular time and place, the era of the Jim Crow South and women who are supposed to put up and shut up–particularly black women.
So she tells us, clearly, what that means and how it applies to girls, to youth of color, to queers: “At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.”
In others words: stay alive to adulthood. Then breathe.
Angelou iterates the internecine connection between racism and misogyny seamlessly. She wrote, “If 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.”
That line. That magnificent, gut-churning line–so perfectly explicative in stating what it is to be a black woman in the white, Jim Crow South, it takes your breath away.
Hilton Als, literary scholar, editor at The New Yorker, and a black gay man who has written extensively about the various correlatives between being black and gay, black and male, female and male in American society interviewed Angelou for The New Yorker in the August 5, 2002 issue. “Songbird: Maya Angelou Takes Another Look at Herself” is a provocative portrait of the then-74 year old Angelou.
Als situates her firmly as an orchestrator of a new generation of black feminist writing. He notes that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was iconoclastic: it marked, Als explained, one of the first times a black autobiographer had been able to “write about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense.”
Als also asserts that Angelou helped spawn other black feminist writing in the 1970s, referencing black feminist writing’s “resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist” and in the time in which it was written, the waning years of the black civil rights movement.
He insists that Angelou’s writings, because they delve more deeply into “self-revelation” than the more explicit politics of the time, including feminism, freed other women writers to “open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world.”
Which is exactly what those of us reading Angelou’s work in a college classroom felt: freed to speak our own truths the way she had spoken hers.
Not everyone has appreciated Angelou’s work over the years and she is still, Inaugural poet status aside, frequently censored by schools. The same things that I and other budding lesbian feminists had found so comforting in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings continues to unsettle parents and school boards 45 years after its publication. Her books are often removed from school curricula and libraries. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, most frequent objections to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are its depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography and violence.
The sexually explicit scenes, use of extreme language and lesbianism landed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings third on the American Library Association (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 and sixth on the ALA’s 2000–2010 list.
Obviously, if it still unsettles readers decades after its publication, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings resonates. If Angelou had never written anything else, never done anything else, if she had been another Harper Lee or Henry Roth with one, single, truth-telling, life-altering, shibboleth-shattering book in her, that really would have been enough. Because those words at that time were words we’d never heard before and they still resonate, 45 years after she wrote them. As Als contemporizes her work in that 2002 profile, she is both an iconoclast of that time and also able to move beyond any restraints of that very turbulent and utterly political era, in part, no doubt, because she focused on how her own experience might inform that of others.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings may have been her first memoir, but of course there was much more work to come. She would write seven memoirs as well as numerous books of poetry and essays. She both acted in and wrote plays. And in 1993 she broke more ground when she was chosen by Bill Clinton to read a poem at his first inauguration, an event which would win her the popular title of “the black woman’s poet laureate.”
It had been a steady, but arduous climb to that place.
Angelou’s early years were riven with pain and suffering, but none of it kept her from being a true citizen of the world. She gave birth to her only son, Clyde, who later changed his name to Guy, less than a month after she graduated from high school. She was 17.
The next few years were dicey and dangerous. As she wrote, she was a madam and a prostitute, involved in petty crime and whatever else would support her and her infant son. But by 1951 she was living in San Francisco and singing in straight and gay clubs, her focus the Calypso music so popular in the 1950s. She had also met the iconic black gay dancer and choreographer, Alvin Ailey, and the two of them formed a dance team, “Al and Rita.” (Maya was her brother’s pet name for her, but she was born Marguerite Johnson, and most people called her Rita. She became Maya Angelou when one of the club owners thought it sounded more exotic and would promote her Calypso act.) In 1954 she was cast in the musical “House of Flowers,” written by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen.
By 1960 she’d had a reasonably successful album of Calypso music debut and she had focused on acting, starring in a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with a remarkable cast that included James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett and Abby Lincoln.
Angelou spent the early 1960s in the American expatriate community in Ghana, which was where she met Malcolm X. Their closeness led her back to the U.S. where she renewed her deep friendship with her “brother,” James Baldwin.
Angelou said she and Baldwin “became friends in the late 50’s, just as the United States was poised to make its quantum leap into the future; just as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other Southerners were girding themselves for the second civil war in one hundred years; and just when Malcolm X was giving voice to the anger in the streets and in the minds of northern black city folks.”
Her love for her friend’s work influenced her own. Angelou asserted, “I hear Baldwin as apart of the continuity, begun if you will for me anyway, with Frederick Douglass in 1849 in the slave narrative. I hear his voice. I hear Baldwin when I think of Jupiter Hammon, a slave in the 18th century. I hear Baldwin in the music, the lyric really, of George Moses Horton, writing about 1840, ’50. He wrote ‘Alas, and was I born for this, to wear this slavish chain–’ I hear Baldwin.”
It was Baldwin, with whom she was spending the majority of her time in that period, who urged her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.He introduced Angelou to Richard Loomis at Random House, who would be her editor for decades. Loomis was convinced Angelou, who was then determined to succeed as a poet and playwright, should write an autobiography.
Angelou recalled in a 2008 interview with NPR, “The truth is that he had talked to James
Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’” (Read more about their relationship here.)
In the 1960s Angelou spent as much time working for black civil rights as she did writing. She and Malcolm X formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
After the murder of Malcolm X and the dissolution of the organization, Angelou worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. She succeeded Bayard Rustin as the coordinator of the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin and King had co-founded the SCLC, a primary conduit of the civil rights movement.
While the assassination of Malcolm X had left her “devastated and adrift,” Baldwin’s support was pivotal to her during this period and it propelled her to write while she worked with King on several civil rights initiatives. In 1968 Dr. King had requested that she work with him to organize another march to rival the 1963 March on Washington. But just weeks after their meeting, he was assassinated. On her 40th birthday. For years afterward she refused to celebrate her birthday, instead sending flowers to Coretta Scott King.
In her later years Angelou focused on her teaching (she was Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem) and her poetry, which had evolved into a performance/spoken-word style. She was a frequent lecturer and guest speaker and appeared often on talk shows as well as Sesame Street where she promoted her love of books for children.
Among my favorite poems of hers are “Phenomenal Woman” and “And Still I Rise.” In the latter she draws heavily from the call and response of the Southern black churches of her youth and the intonation of evangelizing that was a staple of her compatriots in the civil rights movement. You can hear her read this at PoemHunter.com, and I recommend that, because her marvelous, mellifluous voice, with all its richness and provocative accentuations is part of the revelations of this poem, but, here it is in its entirety, from the PoemHunter.com site:
And Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread 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
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
There are surprises in this seemingly simple work–the humor, the darkness, the sexuality. But at the core Angelou is doing what she does in all her writing–unites the twin themes of racism and misogyny. She never stopped talking about how racism and sexism were the ruination of the planet and how they had held back not just America, but the world that she was so much a citizen of. Her refusal to ignore sexism and its impact on black women set her apart from many of her contemporaries for whom feminism was “over.”
Angelou’s descriptions of men were always quixotic and it’s instructive that in 2008 she campaigned for Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama. About her own father, Bailey Johnson, she wrote, “He was a lonely person, searching relentlessly in bottles, under women’s skirts, in church work and lofty job titles for his ‘personal niche,’ lost before birth and unrecovered since. How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.”
Again–that intersection of racism and sexism.
Angelou had surrounded herself with gay men most of her life. Many of her pivotal personal and professional relationships, particularly in the first half of her life, were with gay men–her brief dance team with Alvin Ailey, who pre-deceased her by 25 years, dying of AIDS in 1988. She worked on Genet and with Capote and one of her enduring influences was James Baldwin.
Her friendship with him was a definite nexus for her between racism and sexism, homophobia in the black community being rife then–she knew it was why she was succeeding Rustin at SCLC. Her clarity on these issues is evident when she writes that Baldwin sought to escape racism in France as she had in Ghana. But it followed them both. She notes, “France was not without its race prejudices. It simply didn’t have any guilt vis-à-vis black Americans. And black Americans who went there, from Richard Wright to Sidney Bechet, were so colorful and so talented and so marvelous and so exotic—Who wouldn’t want them? Of course. But among the people they did not want in France were the Algerians. As Jimmy said, they were the niggers of France. To him, they were his brothers. He was very outspoken during the Algerian War, when they had been trying to win their freedom from France in the 50’s. He wrote about the Algerians in No Name in the Street.”
Angelou’s attention to the complications of racism and sexism enfolded Baldwin easily. As Angelou had broken ground for women–all women, regardless of race–by exploring taboo subjects, so had Baldwin by addressing homosexuality. Angelou writes of him, “In this particular society, we are supposed to be so contained. Men are supposed to be men. Women are supposed to be women, and not need, really need, anybody. The ability to ask ‘Will you be my brother?’–the courage to ask–is often missing. James Baldwin was a brother. Incredible!”
In her final years, however, it was women with whom she spent her time, focused on the role of black women from her past and her present. Her last book, the best-selling Mom & Me & Mom was part memoir, part discourse on the role of the black woman in society. It was the seventh and final volume of her autobiographical series.
Angelou was the recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees and she preferred to be called Dr. Angelou. She received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She served on two presidential committees and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2011. When she performed at Clinton’s inauguration, she was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961.
Angelou was widely quoted and eminently quotable. A few of her most enduring are:
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.”
But she also said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Angelou told stories that no one else before her had done. Putting those stories down on the yellow legal pads on which she wrote made her, the girl from Stamps, Arkansas whose mother told her she wasn’t pretty so she needed to be smart–that girl, that woman, became internationally known, with millions of books in print.
Marguerite Johnson, named for her great-grandmother, a freed slave, began as a caged bird. As Maya Angelou she ended flying free and teaching others how it’s done. Her remarkable life, her extraordinary work, affected the lives of millions of women. She wasn’t a caged bird for very long, but even in death, she still sings.
Photo via Poetry Foundation