Maya Angelou showed a rare form of courage
The news of Maya Angelou’s passing reverberated through me. Though not a big woman, she stood tall among modern American writers and poets giving voice to those repressed and underprivileged.
Her aptly titled classic work “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” resonated within me as a closeted gay man despite it being an African American woman’s story. Cages and closets, after all, share the commonality of potentially being virtual prisons.
In time I would come to understand that anyone who is not white, straight, and male in America faces barriers to be hurdled if he/she has any hope of finding authentic happiness. So it goes.
I also came to understand, however, one has a choice of wallowing in victimhood or confronting it and courage is not speaking or acting in the absence of fear but despite it.
Maya was raped at a very young age by her mother’s consort, who was found later stomped to death in a back alley. Maya blamed herself for his vicious ending. In her mind it was her fault despite she being the victim of a most heinous act. As a result, she became mute speaking only to her brother Bailey.
In time her teacher helped her find her voice and once she did, she spoke strongly and eloquently about living in poverty during the Great Depression in the Klan-dominated South. In so doing, she gave voice to all women easily sorted and classified by the dominant hetero male culture.
Phenomenal woman, she called herself.
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, / They think I’m telling lies.”
Maya states from the outset she isn’t pretty, cute, or proportioned in accordance with stereotypical fashion-model standards. Yet Maya’s regal, striking, and powerful presence commanded attention.
In her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” created for and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, she draws on the images of a Rock, a River, and a Tree to help us understand our place in this, what I call the Great Unfolding, and the futility of building up earthly treasure.
“Across the wall of the world, / A River sings a beautiful song, / Come rest here by my side. / Each of you a bordered country, / Delicate and strangely made proud, / Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
“Your armed struggles for profit / Have left collars of waste upon / My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.”
There’s hope, however, she proclaims:
“Yet, today I call you to my riverside, / If you will study war no more. Come, / Clad in peace and I will sing the songs / The Creator gave to me when I and the / Tree and the stone were one.”
Practicing courage has the effect of opening one’s heart, the reason courage and compassion being siblings. Maya demonstrated that by rising above and moving beyond childhood rape to living a life in a place where lives of blacks had little value.
Before her reading, she told the Los Angeles Times, “In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different.
“I suggest that we should herald the differences, because the differences make us interesting, and also enrich and make us stronger. The differences are minuscule compared to the similarities.”
Despite the American experience of racism, pogroms, and economic and social repression, she writes, “History, despite its wrenching pain, / Cannot be unlived, and if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.
“Do not be wedded forever / To fear, yoked eternally / To brutishness.”
It’s through her poet’s voice Maya has offered us perspective and hope.
“Poetry is the strongest language we have,” she told the Times. “Unfortunately, it has fallen on disfavor, and so a number of people got the erroneous idea that poetry was nerd talk–that it was evidence of weakness. The truth is poetry shows the human being at her/his strongest; at her/his best.”
As a clumsy poet at best, I get it, so all the more reason to offer gratitude to the Universe for having had the opportunity to read and teach Maya Angelou’s work.
“Now you understand / Just why my head’s not bowed. / I don’t shout or jump about / Or have to talk real loud. / When you see me passing, / It ought to make you proud.”