I find that I haven’t stopped thinking about the life and legacy of Maya Angelou. She seems one of these people who, had she not existed, we would have tried to invent: living so many American lives, including alongside so many in the civil rights movement before she herself was famous; writing soul-nurturing poetry and prose that will stay with our generation until we die; transcending categories of race and gender yet inhabiting them all the same.
These days, many academics write about a desire to “de-racinate” and “de-gender” everything, so that the measure of a person’s life should be comparable to the measure of anonymous emails, where you can’t know and shouldn’t ask about the sender’s sex or color. I have students like this; they wouldn’t want journals to consider race/gender when it comes to their poetry selections. A person like Maya Angelou provides them a great example; they can accurately say that her poetry is peerless, no matter what she looks like. Yet to measure Maya Angelou that way simply denigrates her achievements. She didn’t succeed only because her poetry deserved publication in books; she succeeded because of and despite what she looked like.
I won’t link to her poetry because that’s easy for you to find; instead I want to get at her wider legacy. For that, I find myself re-reading Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, because I love Davis’ take on what made those original ladies so unique – namely the first legends of blues, Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Billie Holiday. Why did they matter so much, in a way that a peer like Benny Goodman didn’t?
Davis writes, “Women’s blues cannot be understood apart from their role in the molding of an emotional community based on the affirmation of black people’s – and in particular black women’s – absolute and irreducible humanity. The blues woman challenges in her own way the imposition of gender-based inferiority. When she paints blues portraits of tough women, she offers psychic defenses and interrupts and discredits the routine internalization of male dominance.”
When you see Angelou take up space that previously belonged only to white men like W.H. Auden and Robert Frost (as great as they are), it disrupts what you thought you knew.
Beyond that, Maya Angelou never sounded like she was coming from a place of privilege. On some level, you knew that she knew the blues. How do black women’s voices, even when only heard on the radio or in print, differ from other voices? Glad you asked.
Davis writes, “The representations of love and sexuality in women’s blues often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions regarding women and being in love. They also challenged the notion that women’s ‘place’ was in the domestic sphere…The sparsity of allusions to marriage and domesticity in women’s blues therefore becomes highly significant.”
“There are far more songs of advice among women’s blues recordings than there are songs of female competition. One of the principal modes of community-building in women’s blues is that of sharing experiences for the purpose of instructing women how to conduct their lives.”
By evoking a womanist discourse already recognizable to black women, the blues women – and later, Maya Angelou – helped inspire theretofore little-known black female pride and visibility.
Perhaps you, like some of my students, would be saying: well, the songs are just songs, often written by others, and the poems are just poems, not necessarily reflecting the opinions of the author. Well, Davis has a few words for that. They are: “The lives of many of the blues women of the twenties resembled those of the fearless women memorialized in their songs.”
Davis writes, “Although women generally were not socially entitled to travel on as wide as scale as men, significantly, blues women overcame this restriction. Likewise, in their music, they found ways to express themselves that were at variance with the prevailing standards of femininity. Even as they may have shed tears, they found the courage to lift their heads and fight back, asserting their right to be respected not as appendages or victims of men but as truly independent human beings with vividly articulated sexual desires. Blues women provided emphatic examples of black female independence.”
And for a new generation that can’t tolerate listening to scratchy vinyl blues recordings, Maya Angelou provided the same.
Davis also notes that the blues women were almost as much of a challenge to black notions as they were to white stereotypes. The African-American Christian church had always “relegated sexual conduct to the realm of sin,” but the blues refused that notion six ways from Sunday. Davis: “The blues realm is all-encompassing. In contrast to the condemnatory and censuring character of Christianity, it knows few taboos. As a cultural form that has long been a target of racist-inspired marginalization, the blues categorically refrains from relegating to the margins any person or behavior.”
While Angelou’s poetry did not linger long on sex (whatever her past), it was certainly among the most forgiving, or “all-encompassing,” poetry ever regularly seen on office-cubicle walls. Somewhat like Nelson Mandela, Maya forgave us all (maybe, all too many). It’s too easy to ding her for perpetuating a type Toni Morrison once described, not as a compliment, as “full of endless love.” It’s much harder to keep yourself from missing that endless love when it’s gone. Like the blues women, Maya Angelou’s love was something hard-earned, part of their unique experiences as black women, and never taken for granted, by them or by us.