Every semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.” I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too. Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone. Of course, nothing I am saying here is new. I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left. Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist) triumph and achievement. These two poles do not have to be opposing though. Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality. Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals. Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities. This ain’t no surprise though now is it? Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning. Hardly a coincidence.
This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):
In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you. But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live. There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.” This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.” Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women. Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group. She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!
What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this. It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.