CARPE LIBRUM: Revisiting the legacy left by Maya Angelou

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

“The Collected Autobiographies

of Maya Angelou”

Modern Library, 2004, pgs. 1184       y Maya Angelou

It is a standard assigned summer reading for AP American literature, which is where I encountered it. Angelou’s voice and ability to put the reader firmly in the moment she recalls on the page is a gift for which many writers lust. It had been years since I picked up “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” But her poetry continued to enter into my orbit—frequently through monologues performed by other actresses in acting class or in spontaneous recollections of customers at the bookstore who were lucky enough to have class with her at Wake Forest.

In 1982 Angelou was appointed as the first lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. She resided in NC until her death in 2014. It seemed time to revisit her work—in fact, even, to visit more of her work.   

“That is a huge book,” Joel commented one evening when he saw me reading “The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou.”

“That’s because it is six books,” I responded. “It is ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ ‘Gather Together in My Name,’ ‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas,’ ‘The Heart of a Woman,’ ‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,’ and ‘A Song Flung Up To Heaven’—all in one volume.”

“OK, that makes sense.”

At 1,184 pages, the “Autobiographies” is longer than David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” (1,079 pages), a book famous for its length and density. Angelou stated in interviews she hoped to be the American Proust—through writing her reminiscences, she would create a narrative that mined the personal for the eternal and made autobiography a legitimate literary form. Well, having read both her and Proust, let me just say: She leaves him in the dust. Her life is far more interesting.

In “Gather Together in My Name,” we see her as a young, single, African American mother trying to make her way in the world, just after WWII. There are not a lot of doors open to her: domestic service, cooking, child-minding, waitressing. These are not careers. She inadvertently finds herself as a madam operating a whorehouse with two lesbians who service black Navymen. Later she briefly works as a prostitute herself to help the man she thought she loved. She soon learned otherwise when her baby was absconded by the babysitter.

Later in “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas,” we follow her as she breaks into show business and becomes a sought-after nightclub performer. She joins the cast of “Porgy and Bess” on an international tour. “The Heart of a Woman” continues the story to Africa and the beginning of her writing career. “A Song Flung Up To Heaven” deals head-on with the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcom X, and her return to America at the height of the civil-rights struggle. 

They are possibly some of the most fascinating and insightful writings ever produced in the English language. Part of what Angelou is able to do also is articulate interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic, in mid-century America. The landmark Supreme Court case of Richard and Mildred Loving was in 1958. Angelou married a Greek man in California in 1951. The response from family and friends was just as vocally opposed from the African American community as from the Caucasian community. Perhaps that is her real secret weapon with the “Autobiographies”: Yes, it is powerful for young African American women to find a voice that resonates experiences they share. It is essential to be able to find and see yourself on the page. But Angelou shows white America how other people see them. Yes, there is anger in her description, and justifiably so, but also confusion and distrust. Why would a white girl I don’t know in a record store decide to befriend me and offer me a job? Why? What is the trick she’s going to pull? It is eye-opening, to say the least.

Truly, before you can write, you must experience. I think with the success of David Sedaris’ essays everybody wants to write creative nonfiction about their lives and make a living from it. Alas, Sedaris is already filling the niche of “spoiled suburbanite with a bad attitude”; there just isn’t room for thousands to recount their loves and losses in lives of privilege. However, the life of Maya Angelou can barely be contained within the pages. She makes the most personal experiences feel palpably real enough to be cautionary. She infuses them with insight to bring people closer rather than farther apart. Her literary legacy and her life are gifts that will echo down through generations, just as they should.

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