by Andrea Elizabeth
I watched the middle part of the pbs American Masters documentary on Maya Angelou last night. I did not know that she was a dancer and singer in the 50’s. Then she discovered that people really responded to her slavery abuse performances. Then she was encouraged to move to Harlem to join their writer’s guild. One person interviewed said how angry she was and how she inspired them to be angry too about their roots, of which some didn’t give much thought. Incitement to be angry over past abuses isn’t healthy and is what the left seems to be screaming about so loudly nowadays. It isn’t right.
She did have a point about how she had to walk as a young woman through white sections of town and endured lots of “how dare you be here” glances. This was during segregation which was horrible, but it was different than slavery. There are other people who experience social ostracization. I know it’s not being a good listener to say you don’t have it as bad as some people. But since the black voice is so loud, especially during the last year of Obama’s presidency, I think other voices matter too. At least black people had a community, however unequally incommoded, beyond their immediate family to which they belonged and were accepted. It’s ok for Mexicans, Jews, and LGBTQ’s to join in the complaining, but not other un-average looking or different believing people. Liberals know how to shun too. More introverted marginalized groups stay quiet in the shadows when they aren’t riled up to cause a stir.
I criticize the lime light though. Sure everyone wants their share, but I do not believe this to be a noble pursuit. It is often based in envy, vainglory and greed. I was surprised how many times Maya said, “that’s where the money was”. And if you read wikipedia’s account of her early life (I missed the first part of American Masters), she was mainly done wrong by her own family. I wish she was more of a crusader for child abuse than white abuse. But child abuse survivors often choose other groups to rail against instead, I’ve found, and can almost be Stokholmish about their abusers, or view themselves as blameworthy or even complicit. See Milo Yiannopolis and what happened to Maya below:
“Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer.[note 1] Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, derived from “My” or “Mya Sister”. When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In “an astonishing exception” to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because “she made wise and honest investments”.[note 2]
Four years later, the children’s father “came to Stamps without warning” and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …” According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.
When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).
Angelou held many jobs, including some in the sex trade, working as a prostitute, table dancer, and madame. Although some have tried to erase this from her past, Angelou was public about it. She said, “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name“, about her past as a sex worker.