Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Mourning
Pierre Tristam | May 28, 2014
Almost half-way through I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes how, as a girl of 9—a year after her mother’s boyfriend had raped her—she stood in her grandmother’s country store in Stamps, Ark., the only black-owned store in the segregated town, innumerable people standing almost at attention in the store, listening to the radio. It was the title fight between Joe Louis and James Braddock. And Braddock had just taken down Joe.
“My race groaned,” Angelou writes. “It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maide for being forgetful.” Note the capital B for black, but no capital letter for white. “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. True that we were stupid and ugly and lazy and dirty and, unlucky and worst of all, that God Himself hated us and ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, world without end.”
It must have been how blacks felt the night of Nov. 4, 2008, before it became obvious that Barack Obama would beat John McCain in a landslide. Some victories have to be won. Joe Louis came back and beat Braddock. “Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. […] It would take an hour or more before the people would leave the Store and head for home. Those who lived too far had made arrangements to stay in town. It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.”
The brief chapter is written like a self-contained story, the narration recreating the tension of the fight and the jubilation of the release, but at no point losing sight of what little Angelou saw and sensed of the men and women around her, sensing how they sensed that what they were hearing was connecting them to a fate far beyond theirs and beyond Stamps, Ark. Whites couldn’t understand the meaning of Joe Louis’s victory in those terms, at least not as well as when Angelou immortalized them in her autobiography.
The same can be said of so much more that her prose made possible–a prose of literary jazz and blues that gave birth to a new form–, down to the moment when that same Black girl who had stood in the Store in Stamps listening to the radio was standing at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, reading her own “On the Pulse of Morning” as the man then called the first Black president listened in.
Having heard the Joe Louis fight and recited the poem at the inauguration, maybe she wasn’t surprised that Obama was elected 16 years later. She was all about remarkable journeys and unlikely triumphs, living her early life as a dancer and singer, editing a magazine in Cairo, working as a secretary in Ghana, then a university professor who’d never graduated college and a standard presence on Oprah and the lecture circuit, all the while loving pot, loving music, loving sex, and being proud of it. “Society dictated that sex was only licensed by marriage documents,” she wrote in Gather Together in My Name, the second installment of her autobiographies. “Well, I didn’t agree with that. Society is a conglomerate of human beings, and that’s just what I was. A human being.”
And that was that. That was Maya Angelou.
Several years ago when my daughter was still at home and her mind was not yet a sieve devoted to separating herself from the more engaging or challenging sides of post-high school life we read out loud, as a family and in succession, the seemingly endless series of Angelou memoirs she wrote between 1969 and 2002, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and ending six books later with A Song Flung up to Heaven. From a distance the successive volumes looked, in their pastel-colored dust jackets and uniform designs, like one of those series of unfortunate events younger readers love to sink their eyes into, a sort of Star Trek in memoir form where the undiscovered country, for white readers anyway, is the segregated South, and then the no less bigoted North, through which Angelou enables us to boldly go, as she did and as no black writer, with the exception of James Baldwin, had gone before. The slave narrative had given way to the insurgent narrative, which she did so much to invent.
The I-survived-a-million-hardship memoir is a genre all its own now, its practitioners enjoying more popularity than literary fiction, each trying to outdo its predecessor in conquered horrors and traumas: if the author isn’t raped somewhere along the way, editors get bored. Those memoirs’ start and end points tend to be more navel-centered than outward-looking: the memoirists want to tell us how they suffered molestations, alcohol or drug abuse, a year’s worth of self-help seminars, a lifetime of sex addiction. But the tales are disconnected from history. The intention isn’t to explore how the self can function through, or despite, society’s obstacles, it’s not to explore a culture through one’s experience. It begins and ends with the self, as if little else really matters. It’s the reflection of a precious narcissism that dominates the literature of the last couple of decades.
Yet the genre owes its origins to memoirs like Angelou’s. The difference is that, as self-absorbed as Angelou was, her story was never disconnected from the larger story of her America—and later, of wherever she would be, her many pages on Africa displaying the sort of affection, surprise and revulsion the comes with the discovery of one’s origins and self. She was inventing her identity from scratch. She was also not going to suffer self-pity, that bane of the modern memoir: “Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party,” she writes in Singing’ and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas (1976). “The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimization. “When access to a better life has been denied often enough, and successfully enough, one can use the rejection as an excuse to cease all efforts. After all, one reckons, ‘they’ don’t want me, ‘they’ accept their own mediocrity and refuse my best, ‘they’ don’t deserve me. And finally, I am better, kinder, truer than ‘they,’ even if I behave badly and act shamefully. And if I do nothing, I have every right to my idleness, for, after all, haven’t I tried?” This from a writer who chronicled her failures with more candor than her successes. But she never was idle in her 86 years, though her memoirs, like George Sand in hers, take us up to less than her life’s half-way point.
Maybe Angelou noticed what the rest of us did: the sequels were weakening just as her life was straightening and she was gaining a strength and confidence that ensured her success, no matter what she did. “I had been called everything from Marguerite, Ritie, Rita, Maya, Sugar, Bitch, Whore, Madam, girl and wife,” she wrote in The Heart of a Woman, in which she travels coast to coast and to Liberia, Ghana and Cairo, raising a teen-aged son as a single mother and developing a more militant political consciousness. “Now in Egypt I was going to be called ‘associate editor.’ And I would earn the title, if I had to work like a slave. Well, not quite, but nearly.” By the time that book was published she could bank on it running up the best-seller lists (which it did), on the strengths of her epigrammatic blend of a particular sort of conservatism, to which she held on until the end of her life, and personal liberty: “I wanted to be a wife and to create a beautiful home to make my man happy, but there was more to life than being a diligent maid with a permanent pussy.”
In Africa she reconnects with a sense of origins, but she cannot stay. “It seemed that I had gotten all Africa had to give me,” she writes in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986). Her search had, like Malcolm X’s search through West Africa and the Middle East during the same period, allowed her to understand herself better. But like Malcolm X, she could not stay away from home. “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. It impels mighty ambitions and dangerous capers. We amass great fortunes at the cost of our souls, or risk our lives in drug dens from London’s Soho, to San Francisco’s Height-Ashbury. We shout in Baptist churches, wear yarmulkes and wigs and argue even the tiniest points in the Torah, or worship the sun and refuse to kill cows for the starving. Hoping that by doing these things, home will find us acceptable or failing that, that we will forget our awful yearning for it. My mind was made up. I would go back to the United States as soon as possible.”
It would be 16 years before she’d issue another installment, a thin, wide-spaced, unimpressive volume, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, even though a quarter of it is devoted to the last days and death of Malcolm X, whom she knew well. We read the book because we’d read the previous five, out of obligation more than pleasure, the way we now watch Robin Williams in “The Crazy Ones.”
Even the insights have lost their bite. “When a black person appears in a white part of town, there is a moment of alarm, but if the black doesn’t appear threatening, he is erased from the white mind immediately.” Sure. But the line has none of the bite, none of the seethe of observations on a similar theme in an earlier volume: “I raged on the train that white stupidity could so dictate my movements and looked unsheathed daggers at every white face I saw.” There isn’t a single scene that approaches the power of the Joe Louis scene in the first book. The performer is tired. When Mom & Me &Mom was issued last year, we didn’t even notice, it wasn’t much reviewed, though it apparently hit the bestsellers lists too. (“She comprehended the perversity of life,” Angelou had written of her mother in the very first book, “that in the struggle lies the joy.”)
I’m not sure reading the Angelou books with our daughter had the intended effect, or that most adolescents are interested in understanding lines like that, though Angelou in her adolescence certainly lived them. Maybe the books planted seeds that won’t produce any fruit for a few years, or a few decades. In any case maybe it’s a mistake to saddle the books with a task instead of reading them for their own sake. Their beauty, however diffuse as you get closer to the end, leave a mark: the more we read, the more if felt as if Maya Angelou had been with us in our living room, in our bedroom, in the car—wherever we read, at whatever time of day. Whoever reads, it’s her voice that comes across, that deep, sonorous voice that spoke as if there never was any hurry in the world as long as one was in her company.
I can’t say we’ll miss her: she was done writing many years ago, and what she leaves behind is still on the shelf in its pastel colors, easy to pull down, easy to get lost in at the crack of a book. We can invite her in any time we like. She is the sort of writer who had that presence: no matter where and when you open her books and start reading, it’s as if she’d never left. She is a loyal friend to anyone who cares to give her a try. You might even hear her speak one of her poems:
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.