Every writer with a blog is going to go into high gear today and over the next news cycle churning out fond reminiscences of a great American lady of letters, Maya Angelou, who passed away this morning at the age of 86. I wish I had more to offer than this.
I don’t know why but back when I was in high school certain English classes (well, we called it “Language Arts” in those trippy ’70s days) read certain books and other classes read different books. I was not in the group that read Maya Angelou’s break out memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and I’ve always kind of resented that. (I was in the group that read “Catcher in the Rye”, but that’s another blog post.) Because of this oversight which I thought was imagined until today, and now realize it was very real, I’ve been deprived of reading one of the great books of the 20th century (in lieu of getting to read another). Both books, from what I understand, having only read one, are supposed to be ways of uplifting and tuning in teenage readers through some dark and cynical stuff. I imagine the best adults are those who read both of these books in high school. The next best (today at least) are those who read Angelou’s story of triumph over adversity. And then there are those who can only identify with Holden Caulfield as they slither through middle age (but I digress).
Having not read Angelou’s seminal work at a time when it might have meant the most to me, I move onto the first of the first Clinton inaugurations in January 1993. For those who think the election of Barack Obama ended an awful era and ushered in hope and change, you were either too young or have forgotten how hopeful we all were when Clinton-Gore took back the White House from the first Bush and eight years of Reaganomics before that. Bill Clinton even widely used the word “Hope” (as in, he still believed in a place called that – his hometown, Hope, Arkansas). To prove that America was going to be different going forward, he called on Maya Angelou (who also grew up in rural Arkansas) to read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning“.
This time I did not miss out. A fairly new arrival in San Francisco, I sat on the edge of my futon, coffee in hand, in front of the TV, watching as Angelou so eloquently did her best to pull our diverse nation together. It is hard to watch that video today and know that while there are many more believers among us, the hate still rages on, laughably at times, until its ugliness spews forth in new and more violent or destructive ways. Witness “Maya Angelou, Racist, US-Hating, Anti-Semitic Nutjob, Most Overrated Crappy Writer, RIH” just cranked out a few hours ago on some rightwing wacko website. As more Angelou facts come forward – she was the first black woman street car conductor in San Francisco. She supported Malcolm X, Fidel Castro and marriage equality – certainly she’ll be denounced as harshly as she is being uplifted in praise. (USA Today has put together a handy-dandy one-pager fit for a saint – a reading list, inspiring quotes and top R.I.P. tweets by stars like Marlo Thomas and Ricki Lake.)
In writing this blog post I learned more about Maya Angelou than I knew yesterday. She was so much more than a woman who wrote a book I never read and delivered a poem at a time I’ve never forgotten. She danced, she lived in Cairo, she married a Greek and she delivered her last tweet just four days before she died. And she’s left behind a healthy legacy of written words someone like me, who hasn’t really read any of them, can savor for as long as I like.
Source: New York Times, “Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86.”