photo by Patricia Spears Jones–rail road crossing Forrest City, Arkansas
this morning I was listening to the BBC, sending out a quick announcement to may email list and prepping for a difficult day at the college I teach in when the plummy voice of the BBC announcer said that American poet Maya Angelou has passed. Maya Angelou looms large in African American and American letters. So I change some of the what I said to family and friends: I have to say this: Maya Angelou, who just passed away-she was 88 was the first poet that I found out was from Arkansas. If you grow up in the Delta, you don’t even think of Arkansans as poetic, much less of people who can write poetry. That knowledge helped me understand that I could make work from where I was from and where I wanted to go or tried to go. I THANK HER FOR THAT.
Most people have no idea of how isolated Arkansas can be especially for Black people. Most of us are in the Delta–part of the 50 counties that make up one of the most fertile places on the planet and one of the most violent and volatile places in the nation. But much of the history of the state is covered over, razed–places where lynchings took place simply removed. Silence, fear and alienation are as common asf family bonds, community pride and courtesy. Bad jokes, marching bands and the ability to drive fast are part of what I grew up with–now there are gang signs along with professionalism–the library that I could not use as a child is now headed by an energetic Black woman. Arkansas is a place where Black people will themselves into a better place because there is little support for their efforts. So we are often the unlikely pioneers: The Little Rock Nine; boycotts in Marianna; farmers fighting to keep their land. Maya was there during the Depression in another part of the state–a time when my own mother was a young and she witnessed a lynching. The women and men who grew up and learned to find their way as humans in this world powerfully testify to a deep spirit and great courage. I can only imagine the depth of despair many felt and the utter desire to make the world a much better place which they went about doing in small or big ways as Ms. Angelou did. The debt to them is almost unpayable.