Maya’s mellow fruitfulness
By: Mahir Ali
On a crisp January morning 21 years ago, Maya Angelou became the second poet to be invited to recite her verses at a presidential inauguration in the United States.
Her only predecessor was Robert Frost, who contributed to ushering in the brief Kennedy era. Frost was in his mid-80s at the time, already a national institution and died months before JFK’s assassination in November 1963. (The following year, one of his best-known poems, containing the timeless verse “But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep,” was found next to the deathbed of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.)
Angelou’s performance in 1993, on the other hand, helped to insinuate her into the national consciousness. She was already a bestselling writer, but literary accolades do not necessarily translate into popular awareness, whereas a prominent spot on national TV is another matter.
Angelou’s appearance at William Jefferson Clinton’s first inauguration reinforced the impression of a break from the past, notably — albeit not only — the recent past, the dozen years under Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder. Her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, envisaged the evolution of a more inclusive, more responsible America.
When asked many years later by The Guardian’s Gary Younge whether the Clinton presidency had come up to the expectations she voiced, Angelou responded: “No. But fortunately there is that about hope … it is met sometimes, but never satisfied. If it was satisfied, you’d be hopeless.”
One of the hopes Angelou did not expect to be fulfilled in her lifetime was the election of an African-American president, which partly explains why she campaigned for Hillary Clinton’s nomination in 2008 — but subsequently became one of Barack Obama’s staunchest supporters. Back in the 1960s, when she had debated the matter with Martin Luther King Jr., he had predicted (rather accurately) that it would take something like 40 years. She had thought it would be closer to a century.
Her association with King sprang from her activism in the civil rights movement through much of the 60s, a period when important victories were being won, but their momentum was stalled by two monumental tragedies.
Malcolm X had encountered Angelou in Ghana in 1964 and she had agreed to return to the US to help him with his Organization of Afro-American Unity. But he was assassinated in 1965. Three years later, on the day Angelou turned 40, King was shot dead. She could not bring herself to celebrate her birthday for several years thereafter. “When those two men were killed,” she told the BBC long afterwards, “we all stumbled about like blinded moles. It was really disastrous for black Americans.”
It was roughly at that point that Angelou was persuaded to start writing her extraordinary life story. The first and best-known volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounting her childhood, was published in 1969. The six volumes that followed over the years took her lyrical reminiscences only up to the age of 40.
Angelou was 86 when she died last week, but long before she established herself as a writer, she had been a dancer and a singer, an activist and an editor — in the last capacity as an employee of the The Arab Observer while based in Cairo with her South African husband, one of at least three. Another was a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos, from whom she adapted her surname (she was born Marguerite Johnson and the Maya came from her slightly older brother’s childhood nickname for her, an abbreviation of “My-a sister”).
She later made her mark with her acting, too, but Angelou will chiefly be remembered and celebrated for generations to come as writer, both for her lyrical prose and her simple yet profound verse. She chronicled the African-American experience with inimitable eloquence, unflinchingly describing the ugliness of racial segregation, yet peppering her accounts with a warm humor.
There’s cause to suspect her most unforgettable aspect will turn out to be her voice, in every sense of the word — not just the warm, mellow, authoritative cadences delivered by her vocal cords, but her knack for writing in a manner that invited universal attention and empathy. And while her gift for arresting utterance held audiences spellbound, her smile could light up any room and no space was too big for her infectious laughter to fill.
To cite but one instance of her perceptiveness, she points out early in her first memoir: “In Stamps [the Arkansas town where she spent several of her early years] the segregation was so complete that most black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worker for and the ragged against the well dressed.”
Decades later, Angelou described the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a hate crime, then added: “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America, but black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.”
As Younge noted last week, “with her passing America has lost not just a talented renaissance woman and gifted raconteur. It has lost a connection to its recent past that had helped it make sense of its present.” The loss is compounded by the fact that Angelou distinctly shares one particular attribute with other recently departed elders, from Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger to Tony Benn and Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The chances that we’ll see their likes again are infinitesimally small.
And for an epitaph one could cite a couple of stanzas from one of Maya Angelou’s best-known poems: “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 … 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.”