Friday, June 20, 2014

A Change in Perspective: A Maya Angelou Retrospective


Maya Angelou was possibly the most creative person I've encountered in media. In her 86 years of life, she was an actress, a singer, a dancer, a journalist, a film director, an essayist, and a Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet. But Angelou’s crowning achievement was her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which turned a childhood of oppression and abuse in the segregated South into a beautiful ode to the power of human endurance. Soon after her death I began to see her words being misused by people who didn't know who she was or the context in which those quotes were taken. Initially, I didn't feel  my commentary was necessary because she wasn't just my hero, she touched the lives of millions, even in some unintentional ways. I do, however, still hold a certain level of resentment in regards to the misappropriation of her words. But instead of an extended rant about the ignorant fashioning of a brilliant person's life to meet the needs of some flaccid platform by factions who know little about her, I think it would be better to concentrate on her life, her work, and how the both have changed my perspective.

When I first encountered her work in school, I had to struggle through it like most everyone else. I was not the best reader. My poor eyesight had a lot to do with that at the time. Even if I were a strong reader I would have had to struggle with her work. It was powerful beyond anything I had ever read before or since. Her writing used lyrical language and metaphor that I was too young to understand, but still needed to be exposed to in order for it to enrich my life. When I came back to her work as an adult and took the time to get into it and get to know who she was I was blown away. She used words in ways I could only hope one day emulate. She respected the power of words to shape minds and influence emotions. It was easy for me to see her as some superwoman who'd been through things no mortal could survive, and yet she wasn't the slightest bit of arrogant. She was a gorgeous human being.

Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis and “became Maya because her brother, Bailey, found it difficult to pronounce her name,”  she said The Times of London. When she was 3, her parents split, and Angelou and Bailey went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Ark., a town so segregated, she wrote, that “most black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.” During a visit to St. Louis, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and later testified against him in court. He was found guilty, but was murdered before he could be sentenced. It was most likely one or more of her uncles, but no one was ever found responsible for her rapist's death. She was so shocked that she spoke to no one but her brother for five years. “I thought my voice had killed him,” she said, “so it was better not to speak.”

It was this series of events the became the central narrative in her memoir  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My first instinct was to turn away from such tragedy. I had enough sadness of my own, but years later I came to understand the point she was making. A person's voice is powerful, even if not as powerful as she assumed as a child. It's the idea that if one speaks the truth in a way that people can hear you have the moral authority to change the world. This experience in her life changed the way she spoke. Her vocal patterns were deliberate and intentional. There's a purpose to every word she wrote and spoke. She had a deep respect for silence and understood the power of stories. It is the thing I most admired about her and aim to apply to my own life.

Literature is how she regained her voice. She "heard poetry for the first time" when her teacher read aloud from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, she said in the Los Angeles Times, and soon began to memorize and recite works by William Shakespeare and Langston Hughes. After middle school, Angelou moved to California, where, at 16, a “clumsy sexual encounter” left her pregnant. Raising her son alone, Angelou worked any job she could find, from streetcar conductor to brothel madam, before marrying an aspiring Greek-American musician, Tosh Angelos, in 1951. When the couple divorced several years later, "she embarked on a career as a calypso dancer and singer under the name Maya Angelou, a variant of her married name,” said The New York Times.

It wasn't long after her death that stories began to be published about troubled past. I'm sure there were some fans who were unaware and they were simply capitalizing on their ignorance. There were still others who took some sick pleasure in bursting the beatific image some had constructed in their minds. Much of her wisdom comes from her struggles and mistakes. She knew intimately of what she spoke because she lived it. None of what these articles wrote about her was a secret, she was known in some circles as the queen of memoir, but much of it was unknown to a select audience. I was both offended at the lack of respect for her so soon after her death, but also heartened by the surge of interest in her life and words.  Even if it wasn't new, people were being exposed to some extraordinary stories. There was even more about her life and work that I had to learn, but it took her death to motivate me to investigate even deeper.

In the early 1960s, she fell in love with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Egypt, where she became a journalist at an English-language magazine, before heading to Ghana to work as an editor. She returned to the U.S. in 1964 to join Malcolm X’s civil-rights campaign, but he was assassinated before she could begin work. Her writing career took off in the late 1960s “when a dinner companion, captivated by Angelou’s childhood stories, urged Random House editor Robert Loomis to commission an autobiography from her,” said The Wall Street Journal. The result was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an immediate best-seller.

That book was “followed by a torrent of creative output in every possible medium,” said Time.com. She appeared on Broadway, directed a movie (1998’s Down in the Delta), and published six more volumes of autobiographies, several children’s books, and more than a dozen poetry collections. Critics said her poetry was little more than prose with line breaks, a view that wasn’t changed when she read her celebration of American diversity, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. That  criticism was lost on me and her millions of fans. The way she blurred the lines between prose and poetry  speaks volumes about how much respect she had for the english language.

I hope that in the years to come people will take the time to read her. I don't mind people misquoting her as much because even when she's misunderstood there's quite a bit of wisdom imparted on the reader. All the time I spent frustrated I could have simply been happy about her popularity. What once angered me now gives me hope. Even those who didn't read her work recognized her gifts. As her work passes into the public domain, they will be given even more opportunities to build on what they know about her. I can't help but feel optimistic that when people see the greater context in which those words were spoken they will be even more inspired.  






MALCOLM TRAVERS
Male Media Mind