Monday, August 10, 2009

Maya Angelou's Book

Continuums On Which We Live

I'm reading Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I'm certain that I should have read it earlier in life, but at least I'm reading it now. In the book, as James Baldwin said, Angelou "confronts her own life with ... luminous dignity." Baldwin's gracious endorsement seems an appropriate assessment of Angelou's accomplishment and though I haven't finished the book, there's a few thoughts on the way to finishing that I'd like to get down here.

In one particularly vivid portion, Angelou, who seems to have been a generally dour child (with good reason), describes the excitement of her graduation from elementary school in Stampps, Arkansas. After what seems to have been weeks of VIP treatment from Stampps' black residents, Angelou and her classmates suffer through the appearance of a white man as guest speaker whose comments remind everyone in attendance that they are second-class citizens with little hope of controlling the course of their own lives. The joyful optimism and gratitude with which Angelou started the day was dashed by a speaker whose "... dead words fell like bricks around the auditorium." The speech served to remind the audience only that they were "... maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous."

The enormous hatred inspired in Angelou as she sat listening--"I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all the whitefolks in their beds..."--quickly envelops everything and everyone. "We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other."

It is a dark moment, with no apparent hope of resurrected feeling. After the white man, who has no wish to mingle, leaves, it is time for the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, to speak. Angelou sits and listens, marveling that Reed would even bother to give his address, "To Be or Not To Be." She is unmoved. "I had been listening and silently rebutting each sentence with my eyes closed." Suddenly Reed begins singing, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The audience begins singing with him. Soon everyone has joined in.

"Stong the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?"

Angelou describes the moment as the first time she had really heard the words of the song.

"We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered."

It is a transcendent moment for Angelou and everyone else in the crowd. Somehow the song, James Weldon Johnson's poetry has restored them all. "I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940," Angelou writes, "I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race."

"If we were a people much given to revealing secrets," she continues, "we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers)."

It is enough. But Angelou's book has more and I am not done with it. But it has also stimulated this thought for me: Perhaps we don't name the continuums with which we measure ourselves correctly. We are all of us, black and white, rich and poor, ambitious and resigned, complicated people. But we don't really know how to think about ourselves or the people around us with any real subtlety. The challenge ought to be defining some real life standards by which we should be measured. Angelou has me thinking about this one:

At one end of a continuum is a question asked by Angelou's brother Bailey when he was, say, 13 or 14. "Uncle Willie, why do [white men] hate us so much?" At the other end of that continuum is the persistent determination with which Angelou pursued a job as conductor on a San Francisco street car. Getting the job would make Angelou, who at the time was not yet out of high school, "the first Negro [hired] on the San Francisco street cars." She did, indeed, become that person.

"During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward mutual adult admiration ... She comprehended the perversity of life, that in struggle lies the joy."

So, where do I place myself on that continuum. I am certainly not much like the 13-year-old Bailey who asked his uncle a question that Willie didn't want to answer and probably didn't know how to answer. I have answers to Bailey's question. But how far along that path have I gotten?. How thoroughly have I comprehended that astonishing perversity that Angelou outlines: How much have I struggled and, in the process, how much joy have I wrested from this life?

At the end of her street car chapter Angelou says this:
"To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity."

I like that a lot. If I could, I would try and persuade my children, Nate, Julie and Brendan, that real standards for measuring oneself are subtle. Have you surrendered to the murderous pressure of adult conformity or have you continued the fight against the superior forces of maturity? I don't wish them lives of constant struggle. But I'm pretty sure that no sort of real peace is possible without it. And I'm inclined to believe that if we do not struggle, if we give in, we could become things that we never wished to be. People whose successes bring them no comfort or people who have forgotten about their own dreams and measure themselves by the standards of others or people who don't care about the questions of troubled children.

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