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On Maya Angelou

I feel extra guilty and sad at her passing because I've read so little of her. I read a portion of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in...middle school, or possibly a freshman in high school. It was the Rape Scene, and it was upsetting, and I couldn't go on. For ~20 years I meant to pick the book up again, but I haven't, because cowardice.

When I was a senior in high school, we had to write papers for some contest on government something something. You were required to do it if you were taking Government that term, and I was assigned to take Gov the spring term, so I didn't have to do it. But there was a cash prize, and I was anxious because not only did I want to get into a good college, but I also had an inkling (an inkling that wasn't even a drop in the ocean of the reality) of the problems I would have once in university because of my background (rural, middle-class in the sort of way that would be coded "poor," as I would find a year later). So, a writing contest, a cash prize, and me.

And let's not forget rural South.

So: I remembered Angelou, and I wrote a paper around the theme of the caged bird:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

I wrote about women struggling for the vote and a place in the American political landscape. I wrote about feminism, and how in 1998 there was still no Equal Rights Amendment. I wrote about being a young woman struggling to find her voice even as what we had to read and write about all the time were dead white men. (Oh, I was an angry girl, and I wish I had a copy of this essay still, because it's funny how I've kept the same preoccupations even as I've learned how little I know, and how I've tried to remedy that ever since.)

This went about as well as one would expect.

My Mom didn't like it. (She also mocked how I read poetry, and her saying back to me my own words of I like reading it that way have stayed with me all these years.) (She was also freaked about how I ordered copies of Camille Paglia's literary criticism, because one of the titles was Sexual Personae. Look, I was a baby feminist AND a baby literary critic, I didn't know better!) She wanted me to change it, and I refused.

We had to read our entries in the Gov. classroom. I remember going up, reading the paper, and as I left, a student whispering, "She used words I've never even heard before."

I heard at some point that my paper upset the voting committee, who I think consisted of three old white men and one white woman. I don't think I ever learned what upset them, though let's be honest, it could have been just as much a white girl quoting a black poet as much as anything.

Needless to say, I didn't win the cash prize, or any prize for that matter. But what stayed with me was, at least, the visceral power of words, and how the right ones could make people--teachers!--so very angry. This may have been one of the first times I understood the power of the status quo, and how much I wanted to tear it to pieces.

So I've not read as much Maya Angelou as I should, but she still means a lot to me. She showed me the world as it is--full of struggle, sometimes violent struggle, and sometimes an intellectual struggle that cuts to one's heart. This is a very simple gift, and one that brought my eyes wide open. In short, I think a lot of who I am is--accidentally, tangentially, and perhaps serendipitously--because of her.


( 3 comments — Add your .02 )
May. 29th, 2014 04:00 pm (UTC)
This is an AWESOME remembrance. Well done, sweetie.
May. 29th, 2014 04:05 pm (UTC)
Aw, thanks so much, bb!!! <3 <3 <3
May. 30th, 2014 02:49 pm (UTC)
You couldn't ask for better inspiration. NPR replayed an interview with her from 1986 and she was amazing to listen to. That woman could read poetry out loud like nobody else I've ever heard.
( 3 comments — Add your .02 )

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