The first time I can remember hearing Maya Angelou’s name it wasn’t even about her. It was through the David Alan Grier parody of her on Saturday Night Live that I was introduced to her. She was America’s most famous living poet until a few days ago but I couldn’t think of a single line she wrote. Something about that parody told me I didn’t have to. Did I read her in school like everyone in my generation did? Probably.
So, after hearing about her death, I’ve spent a few hours watching old interviews, reading some of her stuff and reading obits from people who were around when she was at her height. As usual, there were the “what team was she on?” evaluations. A lot of writers of the Right seemed slightly nitpicky with their criticisms, but nothing mean or disrespectful as some of the leftier writers, like this guy at Salon, got all butt hurt about. After all, her “memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ is widely seen as a touchstone of the Civil Rights movement…” One critic was way out of line and had no credit because he took issue with another “widely praised” essay. And as everyone knows, things that are “widely praised” or “widely seen as” anything are beyond question.
I wish I knew what rapper Common was saying in his remembrance, but I will say I’m glad he’s bringing back the Olde English technique of capitalizing proper nouns (and pronouns for the funk of it) and was cool enough not to get all blackety black about it,
“God gave us an Angel and we got to witness that Angel for a beautiful time of life. And though that Angel has returned to her maker, Her Work, Her Spirit, Her Words—aw man, Her Words—Her passion, Her heart, Her Love, Her Greatness, Her Royalty, Her Strength, Her Wisdom, Her Divinity, Her Angel will always be here with us. For my daughter’s daughters, your daughter’s daughters, and forever more. Love you, Dr Maya Angelou.
From what I can see, she wasn’t on any team. If she was, it was, for serious lack of a better term, Team America. When asked by Larry King to recite her poem “National Spirit” (can poets even write such a thing anymore?) she said,
“well let me recite a little bit of another poem because that…it’s so new I don’t have it (memorized). But I do have ‘And Still I Rise.’ And this is for all Americans. We don’t have to apologize, to…or try to defend ourselves when Europeans say ‘oh what a shame you black people, oh what a shame. You’re so under…underclass and so bad and people hate you so in your country. Listen. 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. This is what we do. Americans. We rise.”
It verges on fuzzy ‘we’re all one big happy family’ stuff, but I’ll take any household name who will happily say that as a public figure. The praise she gives Will.I.Am in that interview is iffy, but big deal. She probably didn’t know who he was.
Asked by a BBC interviewer if she was bitter about her early life experiences like being raped at 7 years old by her mother’s lover, and then having her relatives kill the guy,
“I have no bitterness,” she said. “None. None.”
“Well, bitterness is like, like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do a damn thing to the object. It can eat the host to death…I don’t harbor and nurture a little kernel of bitterness, oh no, I know it will eat me up. And I’m here to stay.”
Right on. The same interviewer later asks,
“you write with a glass of sherry don’t you?”
“A bottle!…a Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, a good dictionary and a bottle of sherry.”
Ah, what a lady.
Watching those old clips I can’t help but like her. The shittier things that can happen in life came early to her, and it seems like nothing could really get to her after that. I get the feeling you could approach her and pick up a conversation and you’d both be happy you did it. She was one of those people who have rhythm stamped in the movement of their body. That rhythm is one of the merits of her poetry. It’s nice to read and to hear. But that’s about as far as my admiration for it goes. The content of her poetry just doesn’t do it for me.
I’m not going to pretend to critique her oeuvre here. She has passed away and her being a national treasure and all, I feel obliged to know about her and say how she impacted me as an American. I can’t think of how she did. But I would’ve liked to have met her.