Maya Angelou-thank you


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.

I saw Ms. Angelou perform in the late 80s and she was extraordinary.  She was tall and handsome and commanding and she had a voice that could either thrill the ears or freeze the heart depending on what she had to say.  As she aged she took some odd turns about things that I did not uderstand–the support of Mike Tyson for instance. But that was her way of remaining engaged in the currents of this nation.  I am sure that she like every other Black Southerner over the age of 40 was totally amazed with Obama’s election.  None of us saw that coming.  
Her book I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS which chronicled the daily challenges Blacks faced living in Arkansas, in the South in last decades of segregation should be read by every American.  Every last one including the people who most likely would continue the awful practices that were so intensely corrosive and oppressive.  And her description of how and why her voice return is a powerful statement about the NECESSITY OF ART, OF LITERATURE OF A LIFE OF THE MIND.
I salute her as a PHENOMENAL WOMAN who made the lives of many poor Black girls like me seem so much richer, textured and important.   She gave us that push into public spaces that we were not supposed to be.  REST IN POWER MAYA ANGELOU
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