Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Discovering Maya Angelou

Previously, I had the same awareness of Maya Angelou as I had of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, or William Blake. I knew they made enormous contributions to the world of Art and I could reference their work. But I wasn't intimate with the creator.

Other than a few poems, I'd never really read much of Ms. Angelou's work.

Until recently.

I discovered Maya Angelou's new book Mom & Me & Mom at the library about 3 weeks ago and now I've read literally thousands of pages of her work. Four autobiographies, uncountable essays, poems, interviews - I can't get enough.

I grew up in rural Arkansas, only 30 miles north of Stamps, Arkansas where Maya Angelou was famously sent away to at a tender age of 3 to live with her Grandma. I've walked the streets that she grew up on and I didn't appreciate it at the time. I had no idea that such a beautiful, far-reaching flower could grow in such a barren, uninspiring, desolate plot of land. I would love to talk to Ms. Angelou about growing up in that miserable South. I can relate. My misery wasn't about being black, as was hers, but it was about feeling isolated and out of place, as was hers. Her writings have been a great source of strength for me lately. I laugh, I cry, I look for more books to read or interviews to watch. I guess there was a reason I didn't discover Maya Angelou until now.  I appreciate the discovery and can look back with unresentful eyes and better understand how my circumstances shaped the person I am today. It also helps me understand why I've been on the move for so long. Growing up with the knowledge that you will not settle to live in a place of misery carries down the road and applies to many other situations. When I get the feeling I had growing up - that I had to go - I know it's time to go again. I haven't felt that way for years now, so maybe that's why I'm just unearthing this valuable treasure. I don't have the urge to go so it's easier to reflect on why I always felt like I needed to.

This is one of my favorite Maya Angelou essays -  In All Ways a Woman.

In my young years I took pride in the fact that luck was called a lady. In fact, there were so few public acknowledgments of the female presence that I felt personally honored whenever nature and large ships were referred to as feminine. But as I matured, I began to resent being considered a sister to a changeling as fickle as luck, as aloof as an ocean, and as frivolous as nature. The phrase "A woman always has the right to change her mind" played so aptly into the negative image of the female that I made myself a victim to an unwavering decision. Even if I made an inane and stupid choice, I stuck by it rather than "be like a woman and change my mind."

Being a woman is hard work. Not without joy and even ecstasy, but still relentless, unending work. Becoming an old female may require only being born with certain genitalia, inheriting long-living genes and the fortune not to be run over by an out-of-control truck, but to become and remain a woman command the existence and employment of genius.

The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough. She must have convinced herself, or be in the unending process of convincing herself, that she, her values, and her choices are important. In a time and world where males hold sway and control, the pressure upon women to yield their rights-of-way is tremendous. And it is under those very circumstances that the woman's toughness must be in evidence.

She must resist considering herself a lesser version of her male counterpart. She is not a sculptress, poetess, authoress, Jewess, Negress, or even (now rare) in university parlance a rectoress. If she is the thing, then for her own sense of self and for the education of the ill-informed she must insist with rectitude in being the thing and in being called the thing.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a woman called by a devaluing name will only be weakened by the misnomer. She will need to prize her tenderness and be able to display it at appropriate times in order to prevent toughness from gaining total authority and to avoid becoming a mirror image of those men who value power above life, and control over love. It is imperative that a woman keep her sense of humor intact and at the ready. She must see, even if only in secret, that she is the funniest, looniest woman in her world, which she should also see as being the most absurd world of all times. It has been said that laughter is therapeutic and amiability lengthens the life span. Women should be tough, tender, laugh as much as possible, and live long lives. The struggle for equality continues unabated, and the woman warrior who is armed with wit and courage will be among the first to celebrate victory.

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