The sorrow and defiance of Maya Angelou

Still I rise. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

You may write me down in history
With your bitter twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

So begins one of Maya Angelou’s poems, written in 1978. One of her most famous, it unsurprisingly features in many of the obituaries and pieces that commemorate her life. It is used to demonstrate her individuality, her political voice, her strength.

The poem catches the tone, the pace and rhythm of all her writing, whatever its genre. There is the gritty, determined and defiant attitude, the sometimes literal refusal to take anything lying down. There is the simple energy and downright forthrightness of expression. There is the direct address. Sometimes that direct address is to the reader, establishing an almost unbelievable intimacy between the speaker and the spoken to, the “I” and the “you”; at other times it is to all those who would deny the humanity of Angelou – as an African American, as a woman, as one of those denied opportunity, choice and power.

Above all, there is the link with the whole tradition of African American music – spirituals, blues, gospels, jazz, rap – that uses insistent rhythms, hypnotic repetition, lines that swing, sway and curve their way into the mind and soul to make a point, to play on an idea, to strike an attitude and, more simply, to assert a belief and a presence, a being in the world.

W E B Dubois, one of the founding fathers of modern African American writing, said this about the spirituals sung and circulated by slaves in the American South before the Civil War:

They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days – Sorrow Songs – for they were weary at heart.

As Du Bois saw it, these songs, “the rhythmic cry of the slave”, were “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation” and “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas”.

The work of Angelou, verse and prose, draws constantly and intensely on that heritage. In all of it, the beat goes on and what it beats out, in particular, is a simple message: “I am here. I am worthy of notice. Pay attention and give me respect.”

Sorrow songs

There is plenty of sorrow in Angelou’s work. Much of this comes from the particular problems, the intensely personal pains of her life. Her divorced parents sent her and her brother, Bailey, back and forth between St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas, where her paternal grandmother lived, then finally to San Francisco to settle with their mother. There, at the age of eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After naming her assailant, Angelou had to endure the horror of the trial and subsequent murder of her rapist by her uncles. Feeling that her words had the power to kill, she descended into silence for the next five years.

The writer was later to say: “I write for the Black voice and any ear which can hear it.” But she spent so many years unable to speak herself, listening to the voices around her and slowly, quietly absorbing and assimilating them. Later, when she grew up, Angelou was to become still further acquainted with suffering and oppression – to walk in darkness, to use Du Bois’s phrase – facing difficulties with men, working briefly as a prostitute and a becoming involved with drugs.

But what Angelou did with all the sorrow she experienced and encountered was to turn it into song – and to give it an exemplary status. She writes, or rather sings for herself, just as all the great American writers since Walt Whitman do. But she is also writing or singing for the reader. She is sorrowing for and celebrating herself; and, at the same time, sorrowing for and celebrating humanity – particularly, that portion of humanity that suffers because of their race, gender, poor social position or lack of cash, but refuses to let go, lie down or give up.

So starting with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in 1970, Angelou wrote one of the great American epics of the self: a multi-volume account of an exceptional but also exemplary human being and her meetings with other remarkable human beings. Among those remarkable human beings is a friend who teaches Angelou to speak again, to rediscover the beauty, the power and potential of the human voice. There is also her grandmother, who instills in her a love of gospel music and a deep knowledge of African American religion; and there is also her mother, from whom she learns to love “the blues tradition”.

From women in particular, and from African American women above all, Angelou learnt and tells us how to live and how to speak, how to have a being and a voice – in fact, how to have a being precisely by having a voice. Identity and language, being and speaking, are coextensive in Angelou’s work, as they are in so much African American writing.

Like the slave narrators, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, like such predecessors and mentors as the novelist Zora Neale Hurston and the activist and author of one of the great American autobiographies, Malcolm X, what Angelou does in her work is to speak herself into life: to remind us of both her singular pain and our shared humanity.

She is dead now, but she is still alive for us on the page. She still comes up before us, a living presence, every time we read one of her books or poems. As Angelou herself puts it:

I rise
I rise
I rise.