A Stamp Approved: #FOREVER MAYA
We had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—”To Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., . . . en route to Stamps, Arkansas. . . . Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare—he got off the train the next day in Arizona—and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.
As a young girl, Angelou saw her grandmother, a religious and thrifty matriarch who owned the only general store in Stamps that catered to blacks, bend but not break when confronted with white girls who refused to address her as “Miss.” And she saw Momma protect her son, the partly paralyzed Uncle Willie, with whom she ran the store, from the Ku Klux Klan by hiding him in her deep, rooty-smelling vegetable bin. Then, one day, when Maya was seven, her no-account daddy, with his smile as slick as brilliantine, appeared unannounced in Stamps. “It was awful for Bailey and me to encounter the reality one abrupt morning,” Angelou writes. “We, or at any rate I, had built such elaborate fantasies about him and the illusory mother that seeing him in the flesh shredded my inventions like a hard yank on a paper chain.” It was time for the children to return to their glamorous if feckless mother, Vivian Johnson, a sometime nurse and poker dealer, who was now in St. Louis. Their father ferried them there and disappeared a few days later. “And I was neither glad nor sorry,” Angelou adds. “He was a stranger, and if he chose to leave us with a stranger, it was all of one piece.”
Vivian, the hard, gin-drinking sister of four no-nonsense brothers, would shoot a man as soon as look at him. She was light-skinned with straight hair, and had little in common with Maya, a dark, awkward ugly duckling who twisted and turned in front of the mirror, determined to find a prettier self. Like most girls, Angelou wanted to define herself by not becoming her mother. But how could she compete with a woman who was so smart and cunning, whom so many men found irresistible? At Vivian’s house, Maya sometimes slept in the same bed as her mother and her mother’s lover, Mr. Freeman, a big flabby man who pressed his erection against her. Then Mr. Freeman went further, and he threatened to kill Bailey if Maya told anyone. The rape was discovered, and Freeman was brought to trial and convicted but immediately released. Three days later, he was kicked to death, perhaps by Vivian’s brothers, and Maya and Bailey were sent back to Stamps, where Maya barely spoke for five years. “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die,” she wrote. Eventually, when she was in eighth grade, Maya recited a poem for a beloved family friend and found her voice again, in more ways than one.
When “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” came out, in 1970, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist. As Mary Helen Washington writes in her invaluable study “Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960,” black women autobiographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been “frozen into self-consciousness by the need to defend black women and men against the vicious and prevailing stereotypes.” Relegated to the margins of life, they found it difficult to rewrite themselves as central characters. Only in private could they talk about their personal lives. But Angelou took those stories public. She wrote about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense. The writer Julian Mayfield called Angelou’s book “a work of art which eludes description because the black aesthetic—another way of saying ‘the black experience’—has too long been neglected to be formalized by weary clichés.” Angelou, Mayfield suggested, had set a precedent.
In fact, the approach of the book, with its clear-eyed evocations of black life in the mid-twentieth century, would have seemed familiar to those who had read Paule Marshall’s 1967 story “To Da-duh, in Memoriam.” Marshall was a close friend of Angelou’s, and it’s possible that her portrait of a first-generation American girl who goes to visit her grandmother in Barbados was a touchstone of sorts for the voice that Angelou developed in her own memoir: conversational, but achingly aware of the ways in which what James Baldwin called “the Old Country” could contribute to the making of the new black woman. The success of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” like that of many memoirs, had less to do with the originality of its writing than with its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist. By the time “I Know Why” was published, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were dead, and the only hope for black politics, it seemed, lay in the voices that were just beginning to be heard: those of such strong-willed female politicians as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, two of the first black women to serve in Congress. Chisholm and Jordan, products of the colonial West Indies and the Old South, respectively, pinned their speeches to the idea of a changing United States, and it was their brand of rhetoric—a fierce criticism of the past blended with a kind of survivor’s optimism, a belief in the future of the urban family—that cleared the way for Angelou’s narrative of damage, perseverance, and eventual triumph.
There is no question that “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was an important contribution to the wave of black feminist writing in the seventies. But in Angelou’s five successive memoirs—”Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1977), “The Heart of a Woman” (1981), “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986), and, this year, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (Random House; $22.95)—it has become clear that her real literary cohorts, at least in terms of affect, are not her politically minded contemporaries Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones but Anaïs Nin, whose diaries, published in the late sixties and early seventies, were also heralded as feminist works, the acute renderings of a woman’s soul. Nin and Angelou are both theatrical writers—they use language, often with great aplomb, to describe and glorify a self that is fulfilled only when it is being observed. Both writers, in their early books, were pioneers of self-exposure, willing to turn a spotlight on their own sometimes questionable exploits and emotional shortcomings. While Angelou and Nin tended to be more interested in self-revelation than in politics or the feminist perspective, the unabashed female personae they presented freed many other women writers to open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world.
OGTV congratulates the US Postal Service for remembering to celebrate its roots as the first national network of communications that literally bound a nation together, for its brilliant display of honor and recognition for the lady who captured the attention of audiences around the globe, and for its evolution as a forward-thinking, fast acting company, capable of providing quality products and services for its customers.
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