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Nyong'o: Poet Angelou’s contribution to the civil rights movement unforgettable

By Anyang’ Nyong’o | June 1st 2014

The Civil Rights Movement was then beginning to fade into the past. Politics in the US was dominated by the war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was making a desperate attempt to convince Americans that he could pull the troops out of Vietnam and claim victory at the same time. The year was 1972.

His Secretary of State, the professor of history from Harvard, Henry Kissinger, with his baritone voice booming from television channels almost every night, was a good messenger who could ward off attacks from the Democrats as he engaged Le Duc Tho in the Geneva peace negotiations which were as dodgy as the guerilla war itself, was in the muddy thickets in South Vietnam.

It was in the mid of this that I caught the tail end of the civil rights movement in Chicago, relishing in the poetic sermons of the Reverend Jesse Jackson at his Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) headquarters, or listening attentively as the young Richard Gordon Hatcher, the Mayor of Gary, Indiana, emphasise the need for the Blacks to capture local governments as part and parcel of advancing the civil rights gains.

Very often all these inspiring speakers quoted and made references to Maya Angelou, a young Black American woman who had just published a best selling book on the civil rights movement and her experience through those momentous times working with both Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.

That inspiring book, her own autobiography, made a deep impression on me, becoming thereafter my reference point in understanding racism, social bigotry and the predicament of African-Americans in capitalist USA.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969, remains Maya Angelou’s best contribution to the understanding of what kind of person she was, how she endured such horrendous experiences in life, and how, out of all this, she grew strong and inspiring to her people, challenging racism and social bigotry with an amazing intellectual power from a justified moral high ground. The civil rights movement gave Americans the conscience they needed to stand against the horrors of imperialism and the indignity of racism. Maya Angelou was at the centre of all this.

Maya Angelou is dead at the age of 86. The caged bird has finally flown off. She “listened to her inner self and, in that quietude, she heard the voice of God” tell her to escape her worldly cage and ascend into the terrestrial city above from where we shall forever hear her voice through the wisdom that pervades the novels, books, songs and poetry that she wrote.

A time comes when this happens to all of us, whether we like it or not. For, as Dylan Thomas once lamented: “Does a bird deprived of wings go earthbound willfully?”

The caged bird has finally been deprived of her earthly wings that flew her all over the world as her writings went across cultures to be read in Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver, Nairobi, Sri Lanka and Tampa Florida. “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” was a recording of her experience in Ghana from 1961 to 1969 as she spent time in a newly independent African country, looking for a place to feel at home among the people of her ancestry and away from the “acquired home” where her people had been forced to live through the inhuman institution of slavery.

Yet this experience left her with some hollow feeling in the end as she quite often felt some sense of alienation, of not being accepted as “the daughter of the soil.” At times she felt a deep resentment of having been betrayed by her ancestors, and then by the siblings of her time not fully understanding the deep search she had for a place to feel at home.

“The ache for home lives in all of us,” she writes. “The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned,” she adds. Apparently the many questions that she confronted as an African American regarding Ghana as her home deeply disturbed her, reminding her of the inevitability of returning to the US as her only home.

But more important was the experience she had been through life searching for meaning, trying to discover herself, and being comfortable that she was at home with herself.

“We amass great fortunes at the cost of our souls,” she wrote, “or risk our lives in drug dens from London’s Soho, to San Francisco’s Height-Ashbury. We shout in Baptist churches, wear yarmulkes and wigs and argue even the tiniest points in the Torah, or worship the sun and refuse to kill the cows for the suffering. Hoping that by doing these things, home will find us acceptable or failing that, that we will forget our awful yearning for it.”

How very profound! How universal an experience for all those who are determined to gain the whole world while losing their souls!

And when she was finally convinced to tell her own story, to bring it out as it was— “nothing extenuate” as Othello once exhorted those who would tell his own tale after taking his own life, doing what the Almighty had “forbidden living souls” from doing — she wrote in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

However imprisoned she felt within the social networks that would not appreciate the fact that she had been a prostitute as well as a singer, dancer, poet, entertainer and civil rights organiser, she had to “sing her story” while in this cage: she would still be heard.

These, and many others, are memorable quotations from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. But these themes pervaded most of Ms Angelou’s writings, poetry, songs and speeches for more than half a century of her public life. In the wake of Steve McQueen’s production of Solomon Northup’s autobiography “Twelve Years a Slave,” a fresh focus is needed on the works of Maya Angelou that would  “read her” in the context of the dramatised version of what slavery really meant to the resilience of the “Black Woman” in safeguarding and guaranteeing the African American “living” and not just “surviving” as Solomon Northup himself asserted.

If there is any evidence of this “dare to live” it is to be found and celebrated in the struggles and life of Maya Angelou herself, née Marguerite Ann Johnson of St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1920.

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