“There was no need to discuss racial prejudice. Hadn’t we all, black and white, just snatched the remaining Jews from the hell of concentration camps? Race prejudice was dead. A mistake made by a young country. Something to be forgiven as an unpleasant act committed by an intoxicated friend” writes Dr Maya Angelou in her 1984 autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. “Thus we lived through a major war. The question in the ghettos was: Can we make it through minor peace?” She recounts. At the time she was only 17 years old, and in her words “very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months, and [still] lived with my mother and step-father”.
I have been a long-time student of Angelou’s work since my mid-teenage years. I first came across Angelou after seeing an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show on which she was a guest. Reading her work, in particular her autobiographies, I am always struck by her understanding of many issues pertaining to global affairs, especially Africa. Although she was writing decades ago, many of the topics she grappled with still seemed so pertinent today.
But there is something different about her work from many other works I have encountered before and in particular those written by Americans about their experiences in and of Africa. Beyond that she was one of the most formative African-American women writing outside of the white gaze, much of her work lacks the condescension often common in writing and thinking about Africa. In her work, it always feels like she is thinking with me, than speaking at me. Moreover she didn’t use America as a model to which we should aspire to, but stripped it naked of its flaws and facade of harmony especially revealing racialised inequalities. For instance she recognised 9/11 as a “hate crime” but went on further to note that “living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America, but black people had been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years”.
A quick peruse of one of my copies of her books, and within the first 30 pages I can see I made notes on themes around white ignorance, age and prejudice, conservatism of the church (especially to her as a teenage mother), getting involved with people who are emotionally unavailable and discovering one’s body and its pleasure zones among many other topics. One of my favourites, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, chronicles her time in Ghana as she journeys and (re)discovers her African ancestry in the early to mid-1960s. Her son, Guy, was enrolled at the University of Ghana where she also worked after leaving Cairo. Here she formed a close friendship with Malcolm X, who visited Ghana to garner support for the plight of black Americans. In his autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), Malcolm X greatly praised the warmth and support of people like Angelou, Julian Mayfield and Alice Windon, among others, during his time in Ghana.
In her 2013 conversation with Essence and Angelou, Nikki Giovanni observed that during her time in Africa, Angelou “had a great deal to do with how some of the African countries [and Cuba] looked at the [US civil rights] movement and that support was important” in the struggles of black Americans who are still “very close to Ghana”. She went to Ghana primarily to protect her son from racism in America, and yet during her time, she contributed to helping portray a positive imagery and identification with Ghana while at the same time not oblivious to the negatives (such as the role and agency of Africans in the slave trade).
I also loved that Angelou in her work showed the complexities of black manhood, both the positive and the negative sides especially through the joint love between her and her “blood brother” Bailey Johnson and with her friendships with what she called “the other real brothers” such as James Baldwin, Kwesi Brew, David du Bois, Vusumzi Make and many others who she says encouraged her “to be bodacious enough to invent [her] life daily”. She showed both the capacity for us black men to love, but also often the limitations of un-stretched minds when we don’t choose love.
Although Angelou says she believes “we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong”. I do not think it would be taking it too far to say she has found a home in many of our hearts. May she rest in peace and love knowing the body has perished, but her spirit is etched in many hearts across the world.