Maya Angelou: And still she rises...

 

 

The passing of world renown poet and essayist, Maya Angelou, prompted me to resurrect some of my written reflections on this inspired and inspirational woman.  After re-reading her poems, “On the Pulse of Morning,” and “They Went Home,” I recalled a time when I had the opportunity to actually observe this wonder of a woman in person.  It happened when I was lucky enough to attend the graduation ceremony of the Class of 1993 at the University of the Pacific (UOP) in Stockton, California.  This unforgettable and truly historical moment occurred just four months after her eloquent delivery of “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she composed in a hotel room, at the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton on January 20, 1993.  Angelou was only the second poet in U. S. history—Robert Frost was the first, for John F. Kennedy--invited to compose an inaugural poem. That spring, Angelou was invited to receive an honorary doctoral degree at UOP  and I, as the only black op-ed columnist for The (Stockton) Record and long-time admirer of hers, felt compelled to be there. It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Before discussing the poem that I feel most captures Angelou’s essence, I will share my written observations--captured by my May 30, 1993 op-ed column--of that memorable occasion:

“The late afternoon sun shone through the leaves of tall, stately trees sheltering the rim of the lawn in front of University of the Pacific’s Knoles Hall—creating a dappled effect against the background of the outdoor stage especially erected for the occasion.

A great lady would grace this spot today.  Maya Angelou, renowned author, poet, playwright and actress, would receive an honorary degree here this very afternoon, Friday, May 21, 1993.

It is for me a familiar setting. Knoles Hall contained the campus English Department, and was the site of most of my classes when I attended UOP years before as an English major—the place where I cut my literary teeth. So now I would have a connection to a charismatic historical figure: a common alma mater.

The connection cuts deeper than that. Like every other woman in America who read Angelou’s first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I felt a common bond attributable to gender alone. Being of African American descent strengthens that bond.

The scene is festive.  Banners, hung at discreet intervals around the chosen spot, lend color to the occasion. The Michoacan mariachi band is playing. A handsome black youth enthusiastically distributes copies of the “New Poets Generation,” a publication featuring neo-revolutionary poems.  Inside, photographs of Huey Newton at various stages of his reign as Black Panther chief, decorate its pages.

The processional begins. An audible stir of anticipation arises from the audience. The music of the bells, played by university carillonneur Karen Hastings, casts a surrealistic aura upon the occasion.

And then I see Maya Angelou; she passes so close that I could reach out and touch her.  She is much taller than I had imagined, at least six feet, standing head and shoulders above most of the university dignitaries marching with her. Her carriage is straight and engenders within me a sense of pride.

The speeches that follow provide glimpses into the lives of the honoree and her mother, the late Vivian Baxter, who chose to live out her later years in Stockton. After an eloquent tribute to Angelou, Lawrence Meredith, professor of religious studies, adds, “ . . . and just as this caged bird can sing, so can we all.”

Municipal Court Judge Rolleen McIlwrath, an avowed fan and friend of both the poet and her late mother, is no less eloquent and borrows a word coined by the writer herself calling Angelou our “shero.”

But it is Heather Mayne, assistant professor of English, who captures the essence of the occasion when she refers to Angelou as a “personal icon.”

When Angelou finally comes on after being presented the honorary degree, she is all the way on.  She stuns the audience by singing, in a rich and resonant voice, a rousing medley of multilingual songs, including “Jikele Mweni” (The Retreat Song) by Mariam Makeba, an African singer and once protégé of Harry Belafonte, and concludes with the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila.”  The crowd is mesmerized.

“I have no modesty,” she tells her adoring audience, “it (modesty) is a learned affectation.”

She acknowledges the racial diversity of the audience and instructs that because “we are all paid for,” we should all feel liberated.

Her message to the graduates: “Please let us so live that we will not endure decades of useless virtue and inaction.  Liberate the human mind and spirit beginning with your own.”

 

Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” is, of course, no ordinary poem. The piece is the story of humankind and Earth’s beginning. Its own beginning resurrects stirrings of ancient myths created by touches of truth about who we are and where we come from.  It tells about our ancestors’ struggles, our connectedness to those ancestors and our connectedness to each other.  Through the poem, Angelou reviews the evolution of humankind, noting how wars and pestilence have dominated our world since time began and how the tale of humanity spins off its axis when racial and tribal differences spurred villages, countries and nations into drawing lines in the sand over which they dared their neighbors cross. 

Angelou begins her poem with the use of the solid and familiar, bringing into focus for common visualization a rock, a river and a tree, and what each means to us as we make our way through this human journey.  The following first two stanza provide the universal setting for Angelou’s poetic message:

 

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,   

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens   

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom   

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

 

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,   

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow,

I will give you no hiding place down here.

 

  Deep within the body of the poem, she also touches upon that phrase she seems to love: “Each of you, descendant of some passed-on traveler, has been paid for.” The poem ends with hope, the hope that springs eternal within each of our earthbound breasts as we plod across the stage of life to our dusty, but certain deaths.  

Angelou was a disciple of Shakespeare as a child and committed all of his sonnets to memory following a period, where, as an eight-year-old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. For several years after the incident, she would speak to no one and was considered mute by most.  

Angelou’s “They Went Home,” is a great example of the versatility of this writer and poet.  In this poem, as in most of her other poems, her bodacious nature shines through and she delivers it with humor, but also with a very strong message to women.  It tells of a woman’s insight into affairs with various married men.  And it  honors the sanctity, or safety in some cases, of marriage.  Safe for the male to have his cake and eat it too!

I spent part of my childhood in the same Stockton neighborhood that Angelou described in her first autobiography, and remember some of the characters she mentioned there. Due to its status as an agricultural center and the only inland port city in California, the city attracted large numbers of male “transient” field workers. Many hailed from the Southern USA, and some came from as far away as China and the Philippines. A number of workers were single, and prostitution thrived in Stockton.   I like to think that Angelou’s “They Went Home” was inspired by her Stockton experience.  The title gives the poem away:

They went home and told their wives, 

that never once in all their lives, 

had they known a girl like me, 

But... They went home.

 

They said my house was licking clean, 

no word I spoke was ever mean, 

I had an air of mystery, 

But... They went home.

 

My praises were on all men's lips, 

they liked my smile, my wit, my hips, 

they'd spend one night, or two or three.

But...

 

A national treasure with a wealth of knowledge from which many of us have drawn, Angelou will be remembered for her wisdom, courage, eloquent delivery and tenacity.