Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery 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.

Black Girlhood Stories: “Now Sheba Sings the Song”

Hope-Springs_movie-poster-1-450x250As I expected, a few friends are already disturbed by my last critique of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  I am sympathetic to and in agreement with, of course, their desire to surround their children with images of black beauty. I will just say here though that I am as serious as a heart attack about holding black men accountable for their actions and relentlessly critiquing female passivity (the book relinquishes white aesthetic standards of beauty but keeps white femininity in tact in other ways).  This might seem tangential, but stay with me here: last night I watched “Hope Springs” and I only became more emphatic.  The movie, featuring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a suburban, middle class married couple of 31 years, revolves around a week-long therapy retreat for the couple who need to save their marriage (this movie seemingly promised to make mainstream cinema/Hollywood relevant to baby boomers).  I was stunned by how problematic the movie was.  I expected bourgeois conceptualizations of therapy but not the celebration of abuse that the movie upholds.  Streep plays a passive and very nice white wife while Jones plays a mean, bitter, and neglectful white husband who, even at one point, sends Streep’s character crying out the room as she accuses him of bullying her.  The couple sleeps in separate bedrooms and haven’t been sexually intimate for five years.  At the end of the movie, when we no longer see them connected to marriage therapy, the couple is finally intimate again and all is back to normal.  Streep’s character, however, is still passive, submissive, nice, and quiet; Jones’s character is still aggressive and detached, but newly sexually aroused.  The gender roles are not my only problem with this movie: my problem is in the way their identity as a successful, suburban white couple rests on their ability to still “mate” after child-raising.  Herein lies the crux of why these dominant narratives do not apply to black families and to black women in particular.  Though this couple can obviously no longer reproduce children, the symbolic value of their sexuality as a good white family who have reproduced the good, white nation must be re-generated, almost as a way to re-identify older white middle class couples with their former value as young, fertile reproducers.  One sexual act is all it took in this movie to finally rekindle the flame of the marriage, even though the wife’s personality and voice are completely subsumed. The price that white middle class women must pay to represent this exalted reproductive role is such submissiveness and subservience.  If you think that this is an old school argument no longer viable within the supposed enlightenment (and I DO mean lightness and enlightened here as puns) of postmodernism and 21st century new wave feminisms, then just watch the movie.  I’m not suggesting that all white couples’ lives look this way (either in the negative aspects or the positive aspects); nor am I suggesting that Streep’s character represents a respect for white women.   I am hardly envious or impressed with the way that Streep’s character must forego any complaints of her treatment once she receives her husband’s sexual attention.  I don’t covet that cultural representation.  What I am questioning here is the cultural apparatus that centers such (varied but ideologically consistent) symbols of white family life/reproduction.

Black women’s reproduction simply does not have this value.  Black women can take care of white babies and serve white institutions in all other kinds of way, but they do not symbolize the ability to reproduce the nation’s optimal mode of being.  To suggest otherwise is to offer a delusion, not a counter-narrative. You need only think about the mourning that we are still witnessing with the death of the 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in comparison to the national response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and countless other black children in the recent past, or to our now 50-year anniversary of the murder of 4 Little Girls preparing for Sunday school.  Clearly, only certain women have the capacity to reproduce the white family/nation that is valued most.  Some middle class, black or brown, heterosexual women may now have the option of eclipsing their person under a man/hearth/nation like Streep’s character did, but this won’t make them the privileged site of the nation’s reproduction (yes, those married to wealthy, white men might get closer to this privileged site but their status will come from training/rewarding their light-skinned children to pass).  You can’t simply re-cast the story with new actresses, with black or brown women as the new queens of the home/hearth/nation and think we are getting something new; it is still the same, white storyline.

ShebaSo when I reject female passivity, it is these symbols that I am describing in “Hope Springs” that I am rejecting.  To see a text that I think challenges Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters in interesting ways, I turn to Now Sheba Sings the Song.  This book  isn’t really read by young audiences, though it was originally intended for young audiences given that Dial Books published it. The book was published in 1987 within a context similar to that in which Steptoe did Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  And since this post started with an adult movie, I am including a discussion of an adult book (initially cast for young readers) as part of my anti-princess campaign.


Soul Looks Back In Wonder.      I Saw Your Face.      Jambo Means Hello.     Moja Means One.   Daydreamers.    The World of Black History.    To Be A Slave.     Zamani Goes to Market.     Something on My Mind.   These are all children’s texts illustrated by Tom Feelings, more famously known for his word-less illustrated narrative about slavery, The Middle Passage.  The success of these children’s texts are what gave Feelings a home with Dial Books and the possibility to publish Now Sheba Sings the Song, a book of illustrations by Feelings with an accompanying poem by Maya Angelou.  Though the text departs significantly from children’s literature (there are only a few images of little girls in the book), it offers a revision of queendom/hearth/nation.

FeelingsThe book is a collection of drawings of black women that Feelings did in the course of 25 years, spanning the full range of the African Diaspora in all kinds of settings.  The drawings were intentionally done in flowing black line and sepia tone, thus attempting to connect tone and line so that each drawing/woman could communicate with the larger set/group.  Feelings tried to capture his awe of black women whose faces so clearly indicated painful and dehumanizing experiences but that didn’t, at the same time, become negative visual carriers with lines/shapes that removed openness and wonder.  He kept all of these drawings at his side for those 25 years, feeling like they had formed a collective storyline, and then asked Maya Angelou to write a poem for all of them giving her free rein to do what she liked, wherever the artwork took her.  As Feelings attests, Angelou took each drawing— all 80 — and placed each one of the drawings on every surface of her home.  Feelings Portrait copyAngelou then sat, walked amongst, lived with the 80 drawings for six months, resulting in the final poem, “Now Sheba Sings the Song,” also the title of the book (the 73 lines of the poem are spread across the 55 pages of the book, making it look like the kind of illustrated text that you get for children).

Angelou’s choice of title is obviously striking… Now Sheba Sings the Song.  She is referencing the Queen of Sheba who has been given numerous names in many cultures’ “book of life”: the Holy Bible, the Holy Quran, Kabbalistic treatises, medieval Christian mystical works, etc.  Born in the 10th century BC  (Sheba was not her name but the name of the vast empire she reigned over), her empire included what is now known as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen; many argue that her rule extended into Egypt, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Kenya. As could only be the logic under white supremacy, there has been considerable doubt and questioning of the fact that she was black (of course, she would not have called herself Black or African in our contemporary, political terms, but she surely wouldn’t have ever called herself white either!) Her relationship with the then King of Israel, Solomon, resulted in a son and a long chain of rulers of Ethiopia.  The word, Song, in Angelou’s title obviously references the Song of Solomon in the bible, “The Song of Songs,” that features a love story that has been debated as an allegory of God’s love for people, divine love within the human heart, and/or the mystical quality of romantic love and sensuality; even more debates ensue around the possibility that the nameless woman in the Song of Solomon is the Queen of Sheba (with the man being King Solomon).  The fusion of Feelings’s drawings and Angelou’s poem puts these questions and issues to rest because, Now Sheba Sings the Song and clarity is re-instilled.  In this revision of Sheba’s song/queendom, it is the beauty of black women that constructs a powerful lineage system and not: the exclusivity of nobility, the presence of a man who chooses you and determines your only value, a social system based on hierarchy (everyone cannot be a queen or rule in a monarchical system), the heterosexism where women are kept/pursued/humanized solely for their reproduction of the kingdom/nation, the performance of femininity for the benefit of male provider-ship/attention, the relegation of black women to the bottom of the social system so everyone else can stay at top. Indeed, Sheba now sings a new song.

Perhaps, it is Feelings’s final thoughts on this collection of sketches that weighs in most heavily for my anti-princess campaign.  These drawings were done when he traveled outside of the United States, especially Africa, where Feelings thought he could finally see and, thus, draw the beauty in black women.  And he was very serious about re-creating black visual images, given the context of minstrelsy and other forms of visual colonization on black life (see the video from Camille Yarborough’s Ancestor House below where she and her guests discuss Feelings’s work in this regard.)  However, he realized that America had only clouded his experience because he really needn’t have looked further than his own mother’s and grandmother’s eyes.  That’s the main lesson here, coming from both Feelings’s artistic process and Angelou’s naming of this poem/book: if you want to find beauty and majesty in black women’s queen-liness, so to speak, you don’t need to concoct stories about docile heirs to or recipients of a man’s throne.  You need look no further than the everyday women in front of you who, despite the pain and dehumanization they have experienced and carry on their faces, are still beautifully open to joy and wonder in the experiences of being black women.