In so many ways, African-American art and culture has influenced politics in this country. Think back to early spirituals that printed the lives of Africans under the torment of chattel slavery. Remember the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance as those like Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday began to free themselves from the fears of a horrific past to imagine possibilities for the future, giving us figures like Malcolm X and Paul Robeson – fueling what would later become the Civil Rights Movement. From Bill Withers to Rashid “Common” Lynn, artists have continued a tradition of giving critical gaze to the varied experiences of people of color in the United States and abroad, spreading love anyhow.
Last week we lost a giant of great tradition – at least in her physical form. The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness” – a title befitting someone who so poignantly described the violence of Jim Crow while so vividly detailing the black experience through stories that energized hearts and souls. Before publishing her first work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she was a dancer, singer, single mother, and street car conductor on the West Coast. She lived abroad in places such as Egypt and Ghana, and was an activist with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For us, she pulled her collection of realities together to speak directly into the souls of any who ached for a life of dignity. It was through her poetic range that she spoke to us in her language of radical self love that manifested as a universal love for all.
There is something about poetry that has always been unapologetic – standing in the face of oppression, whether in the physical or of the mind, and telling the truth. I have been a writer for about as long as I have been politically engaged. I have come to learn that both elements give equal energy to litigating, understanding, and lifting up the concerns of everyday people. Just as my literary interest is fed by Angelou, Baraka, and Hooks, I am also persistently reminded to be critical of myself and the world around me. To know and respect the labor of those who struggle. To understand the importance of place and of memory. And above all, to love. Poetry in the African-American tradition has always been inextricably connected to politics. Remember that Maya Angelou not only encouraged us to “rise,” she also balanced her integrity by matching her work with her words, working alongside both Dr. King and X, supporting her brother Amiri Baraka (who we also lost this year), and mentoring a new generation of those who strive up until the day she died.
How do we best celebrate the life of Maya Angelou? What would be the proper tribute to this “lyrical witness?” Let us find a place for our words to align with our actions – a place where we, as Gandhi put it, we can be the change we want to see in this world. We need it now more than ever.