I grew up ambivalent about Maya Angelou’s poetry because I grew up unsure of my own blackness.
When I confessed to my mom that the handful of other black kids at my middle school said I acted and talked “white,” she actually laughed and said kids told her the same thing when she was growing up in Memphis. We were driving through Lewisville, the suburb just north of Dallas where we lived.
“They called me Oreo,” she said. “Saeed, for the rest of your life, people will try to accuse you of being something you’re not. Get over it now. Save yourself the trouble of caring about what they think.” Wonderful advice that I’ve since taken to heart, but I was 13, encased in hormone-addled misery.
I was the kid who shuddered his way through every February with its seemingly endless procession of Black History assemblies and presentations, all of which required “well-spoken” black students to recite poems and speeches. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” sure to be performed in the school common area by a young black man in a borrowed suit, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” felt inevitable to me. Each year, the poem — hard-won and joyfully self-aware — barreled toward me like a hissing locomotive, arriving just in time to remind me that I still didn’t know who I was.
It’s difficult to admit now but at the time, the poem’s soaring confidence and joyful sense of blackness made me wince. If I read the poem out loud in front of mostly white classmates, I felt like an impostor. If I sat and watched another black student read it out loud, the words felt like an indictment. The poem’s second stanza made me want to sink in my chair: “Does my sassiness upset you? / Why are you beset with gloom? / ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells / pumping in my living room.”
As desperately as any kid worried about not being “enough,” I wanted more than anything to “rise” with the poem, to feel its words coursing through my body like the truth and not a class assignment. But without fail, the poem’s climatic line — “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” — turned to ash on my tongue. That line made me think of sitting in my U.S. history class during the unit on slavery, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on me to read aloud from the textbook. I didn’t want my classmates to see the history of slavery every time they looked at me.
My discomfort, though I didn’t know it at the time, was about more than my own insecurity. A great deal of Maya Angelou’s most celebrated work — from “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings — exists most prominently in the American imagination as Black History Month standards. It should be more than that.
The problem with yanking black art and history from its context, holding it up in fragments for special occasions and then, just as quickly, packing it away until next time is that it becomes a stale artifact rather than an opportunity for illumination.
Whenever I was called upon to recite a black poem for some school or city function, it seems that the powers that be were more interested in being able to pat themselves on the back for having cultivated yet another well-spoken black student rather than engaging black history as American history, which is to say, complex, roiling, and, of course, absolutely relevant to the present.
Having students read a few poems by Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, and calling it a day is more than lazy; it’s indicative of the tendency of American culture to treat African-American literature as decoration or pleasant asides rather than integral parts of the American literary canon.
Dr. Maya Angelou published 36 books over the course of her life, among them, seven memoirs that each explore Angelou’s truly wild and complicated journey from brilliant girl to phenomenal woman. She is a human in those books, not a goddess or a sage. That is who we lost today and that loss weighs so much more heavily than the comforting platitudes and Hallmark-ready lyricism Angelou’s work is so often reduced to. I appreciate Angelou as a woman who broke through, and in doing so, cleared the way for so many others to do the same. That is, I believe, the rising she spoke of so beautifully.
A better understanding of my own infinite blackness came with time; there was no one moment or realization, only a steady deepening. I wish I could sit down with my 13-year-old self and read “Still I Rise” with him. And at the precise moment in the poem where he’d begin to retreat into the fog of himself, that is exactly where our conversation would have to begin. I’d tell him, as Angelou reminded America again and again, that he is possible.
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