02 June 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/23

Family Affairs

You let down, from arched
Windows,
Over hand-cut stones of your
Cathedrals, seas of golden hair.

While I, pulled by dusty braids,
Left furrows in the
Sands of African beaches.

Princes and commoners
Climbed over waves to reach
Your vaulted boudoirs,

As the sun, capriciously,
Struck silver fire from waiting
Chains, where I was bound.

My screams never reached
The rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history.

Tired now of pedestal existence
For fear of flying
And vertigo, you descend
And step lightly over
My centuries of horror
And take my hand.

Smiling call me
       Sister.

Sister, accept
That I must wait a
While. Allow an age
Of dust to fill
Ruts left on my
Beach in Africa.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died last Wednesday, 28 May, at age 86. I think there has been a tendency to see her as a purveyor of Facebook-appropriate uplift, so I thought I'd undercut the kumbaya with this caustic poem in which she politely but firmly disassociates herself from white women who feel that they are her sisters in oppression. She describes these women using fairy-tale imagery, and an abundance of it (arched windows, hand-cut cathedral stones, seas of golden hair, princes (as well as commoners) climbing over waves, the rare tower, even the surreal and striking touch of the woman giving birth to badgers). In contrast, only a few stark details are given about the speaker's life: "pulled by dusty braids," she leaves furrows in African beaches; she is in chains and screams unheard. What goes unspoken, as they often were in American culture, are the reasons for these things: the abduction of Africans (dragged to the ships waiting just off those beaches) to be sold as slaves in America, and the history of sexual exploitation of slave women (referenced indirectly in the "swarm of / Unclean badgers" – burrowing, tenacious, dirt-dwelling animals – consuming the daughters). But when we seek explanations of the speaker's oblique references to her life (why is the woman being dragged forcibly down African beaches? why is she in chains? why is she screaming, and why is she unheard?), we are forced by the poem to remember these things, and to notice that they are officially unspoken, though the woman herself cannot forget them.

The woman in the tower, Rapunzel-like, lets down her own hair; the speaker, by contrast, is prevented from acting on her own, and is pulled by her hair away from her native land (this use of hair reminds me of a similar device in Celan's famous Holocaust poem, Todesfuge (Death Fugue), in which the "golden hair" of the typically German Margarete – note that the name is also that of the innocent young woman in Goethe's Faust – is contrasted with the "ashen hair" of the Jewish woman Shulamith). The woman in the tower also is allowed to change her own status: "tired now of pedestal existence" she descends her tower on her own, stepping lightly, easily. The speaker is not unsympathetic to this woman; a fairy-tale life is not quite a real human life, and neither is life in a tower. Indeed she does not reject the woman's addressing her as "sister"; she returns the title, perhaps with some irony, as she points out that she cannot overlook the woman's complicity in her own tragic story. And the title of the poem, Family Affairs, while suggesting that both women are members of the overall human family, also carries in this context an unavoidable underlying remembrance of the sexual exploitation of slaves. The capricious sun shines on both of them. But their troubles are not the same, and the speaker rejects easy, self-serving identification.

The "fear of flying" line is clearly a reference to Erica Jong's 1973 novel of that name, which became a cultural touchstone for 1970s feminists. The date of this poem also suggests that it was written in response to the women's movement of that period (it was published in the 1983 collection Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?; I took it from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersand). But I think it is too limiting to read the poem solely in light of internecine battles during what is now called second-wave feminism (at the time we called it simply "feminism"); rather it is also a reminder, despite all we have in common as human beings, that there are some irreducible, historical differences, and the broader your category, the more likely it is to be useless. (This is as good a place as any to suggest that if you haven't already done so, it's worth spending the time to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent article The Case for Reparations.)

I heard Angelou speak once, at the Boston Public Library, shortly after I had moved there in 1981. It was one of the most astonishing, indelible performances I have ever seen, and I still remember it vividly over thirty years later. She captivated a packed auditorium with stories from her life – clearly, many of those in attendance had already read her famous memoirs and knew these stories, but wanted to hear them from her. She obliged, and spoke, moved, and even sang for us like the expert performer she was. (And as she signed books afterwards, she had something warm and gracious to say to each person.) I think it's important to remember that as a writer, she started as a performer: she represents the poet as public witness, as prophetic speaker. For most of us, poetry is written and interior; she represents what remains of the great oral tradition of poetry, the bardic tradition in which you serve as the public's memory. I was completely captivated by her powerful presence and her story-telling skill. The evening had special resonance for me, since a few weeks earlier I had been the victim of racial violence. There was some culture shock involved in moving from post-Flower Power Berkeley to post-busing crisis Boston, and I had noted that when I had to tell people (mostly co-workers, who were mostly white) what had happened, they fixated on the fact that it was black guys who had (out of the blue; I was in what I didn't realize was the wrong neighborhood, and some genius had scheduled a football game between an all-black school and an all-white school which had ended in a semi-riot, and I met some of the audience going home) attacked me, but they rarely seemed to pick up (though I was always careful to emphasize it) that it was another group of black guys who, at some personal risk, helped me out. At the time I didn't even have a working phone, or a TV (of course this was long before personal computers), and everyone I knew was back home in California. I had a radio, so when I got back from the hospital emergency room to my tiny, shabby apartment, I turned on the MIT station, which for some reason was playing nothing that weekend but gospel music. That seemed like one perspective on what had happened to me, and so was hearing Angelou speak several weeks later. History is complicated, and so are people, and life is very difficult, and though these things seem incredibly obvious, people seem to keep forgetting that these things apply to all of us, in different ways. When Angelou told the Boston crowd about her first trip to Africa, she mentioned stepping off the plane and realizing that for the first time in her life she was surrounded by people who looked like her – that, for once, she was not a "minority." She paused and said to the crowd in her molasses voice, in an ironic, slightly amazed, seductive tone: "Heady, isn't it?" She was a remarkable American.

2 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

That's the best Maya Angelou tribute I've read in the last week. Thanks for cutting through the kumbaya.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you.