Reading this book is like reading a summary of all the Black Lives Matter articles I’ve read in recent years about systematic racism, cultural appropriation and Black experience. This is the third installment of Angelou’s novelisation of her life. I have read the first part, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I missed the second, Gather Together in My Name. This is not a problem because Angelou summarised the major points near the beginning of this book and, as she seems to have acted impulsively throughout her life, her actions were so extraordinary that I will certainly try to go back to book two.
The more I read Maya Angelou, the more I recognise set phrases and images which are still used today. I’m not sure if she originated them, whether she picked them up from reading, or from conversation. Some of them may belong to a later racial consciousness; after all, she wrote this book 20 years after the events she described. It’s notable, however, that the majority of people she socialised with in this period were white or the mainly apolitical singers in an opera company.
She went on to explain that much of her pride in her race came from her grandmother who had belonged to a Black American secret women’s society. We also know that her mother frequently cautioned her about the dangers of white people; there is a general background wisdom and folklore about interracial relationships.
Maya Angelou’s political consciousness was probably also encouraged by one of the schools she attended which was blacklisted due to ‘un-American activities’; this was the California Labor School, funded by trade unions, which was listed as a communist organisation.
Life with white people
Maya Angelou was mystified when the white proprietor of a record shop, Louise Cox, asked her name, trusted her to pay back later, then offered her a job. Was the woman lonely? “As far as I knew, white women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them and Black women worked for them.”
Even after she took the job, she was on her guard, expecting her boss to show some sign of internalised prejudice. “I waited for one smirk, one roll of her eyes to the besieged heavens and I would have my evidence that she thought her whiteness was a superior quality which she and God had contrived for their own convenience.”
This is an aspect of systematic racism I hadn’t really thought of before, or not until this week, when I read an interview with the ex-footballer John Barnes, who has a book about to be published called The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism. I’m not much interested in footballers, but if his book is half as well-articulated as the interview, then it sounds illuminating. Barnes explains that even white people he likes have shown their innate racial bias. “They’ve said ‘I don’t see you as black’ or ‘I see you as normal’ as if that is a compliment. They can’t say: ‘I see you as a black person’ because in their minds, subconsciously, that equates to them seeing me as inferior. Why can’t they see me as black and normal? Why can’t they see me as the same as them or, maybe in some cases, even superior?”
Angelou comments on Black Creoles from Louisiana who could ‘pass for white’. It’s a concept I only learned about when Brit Bennett’s book The Vanishing Half came out in 2020. I have read neither that, nor the classic Passing by Nella Larsen, published exactly a century earlier; did Bennett realise she was celebrating the centenary when she was writing?
Stealin’ the music
Angelou then goes on to report how white musicians came to listen to Black jazz jam sessions, but the musicians sometimes barred them because “The white boys come, smoke up all the pot, steal the chord changes, then go back to their good paying jobs and keep us Black musicians out of the union.” Again, this is something I only became aware of when my music-loving son told me how many of the songs that were played on the radio when I was growing up had been written and recorded first by Black musicians, without acknowledging the original, sometimes not even on the sleeve notes or label. Of course, the white cover artists got all the fame and riches. If only I had read Singin’ and Swingin’ first, I could have told him myself. While I was trying to find a good link to illustrate this, I found this article about the sidelining of early female Black singers’ work, which is fascinating, but not what I was looking for. An article about whitewashing black rock is more relevant.
Sadly, this is not a dying phenomenon, either, as this list showcases more recent plagiarisms. Black backing singers are also frequently uncredited, though I suspect this is the case for backing singers and session musicians of all races.
Married to Tosh, a Greek-American ex-naval man, Maya became domesticated and revelled in it.“Our home life was an Eden of constant spring, but Tosh was certain the serpent lay coiled just beyond our gate. […] After a year, I saw the first evidence of a reptilian presence in my garden. Tosh told Clyde that there was no God.” To please Tosh, Angelou gave up her faith, but it triggered memories of her grandmother’s tales of having to worship in secret when she was a slave. She repeated this experience by going to different churches in secret, pretending to go to her friend’s house, just like a teenager sneaking out. All the signs of a controlling relationship were there: Tosh told her to give up her job (though this was commonplace in those days), restricting contacts to a chosen few he approved of. At least he spent time with Maya’s son, wanting to be the perfect fifties father.
Hair and appearance
It had never occurred to me in the past that Black hair equates in many people’s minds to ‘problem hair’. Maya was startled to find her son considering straight hair as not just the norm, but better; he wondered when his hair would become grown up as de straight, like Tosh’s. Later in the book, hair again became an issue. Angelou mentioned that the women in the opera company she worked for went to have their hair chemically straightened instead of their usual routine of heating heavy iron combs “heated over cans of sterno”, a sort of petroleum jelly called ‘canned heat’. The issues with Black hair are a major theme in books about Black women, but I first read about it in a book about a fictional white character ironing her hair straight; I suspect it was Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna or something of that ilk. Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana for my book club was eyeopening. It provoked a discussion about hair with a Black friend who was subjected to lots of annoying white folks’ questions, willingly I sincerely hope; I’ve since learnt acting as a spokesperson for an entire race or nation is not appreciated by many people.
Identity politics were different in 1976
If Angelou were writing today, she would probably have written certain things differently. The obvious one is the use of the word Negro, but she also uses comments about appearance that would be frowned upon now. For instance, she often compares black skin to various food or drinks, describing one woman as “the colour of freshly made coffee” and her Greek husband as having “the slow, sloe eyes of Mediterranean people”.
The oddness of equality
“These whites were treating me as an equal, as if I could do whatever they could do. They did not consider that race, height, or gender or lack of education might have crippled me and that I should be regarded as someone invalided. The old habits of withdrawing into righteous indignation or lashing out furiously against insults were not applicable in this circumstance. Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimisation. When access to a better life has been denied often enough, and successfully enough, one can use the rejection as an excuse to cease all efforts. After all, one reckons, “they“ don’t want me, “they” accept their own mediocrity and refuse my best, “they” don’t deserve me.”
When Angelou joined the tour of Porgy and Bess, the opera company first toured to Canada. She commented that Canada was the ultimate destination for the Underground Railroad, the secret route for slaves escaping the repression in the South; hence when Canaan is mentioned in Negro spirituals, it was a coded way of saying Canada. This gave the country a kind of mythical status in Black culture, but perhaps more telling was “the fact that their faces did not tighten when they saw me.” It just goes to show how insidious racism is in the USA.
Maya Angelou always took every opportunity she could and she seemed extraordinarily self-confident, sometimes overconfident, perhaps as a front for her insecurity. While she was in Paris for a season as a dancer and singer with Porgy and Bess, she moonlighted as a singer every night at the Mars Club. “The audience liked me because I was good enough, and I was different – not African, but nearly; not American, but nearly. And I liked myself because, simply, I was lucky.”
In Yugoslavia, “I stood in the dusty store and considered my people, our history and Mr Paul Robeson. Somehow, the music fashioned by men and women out of anguish they could describe only in dirges was to be a passport for me and their other descendants and into far and strange lands and long unsure futures.”
Egypt: Africa at last
On the boat on the way to Egypt, after terrible weather, Angelou met actors from a British film company, on their way to make a film. She talked to actors James Robertson Justice and Geoffrey Keen. There was also a young French actress on board, a certain Brigitte Bardot. The film was Doctor at Sea and it was Bardot’s first English-speaking film role. I have just discovered that Dirk Bogarde was also in the film and that, before the first Doctor in the House film, the producers had difficulty persuading Rank executives that he had sex appeal and could play light comedy as he had played character roles until then.
The members of the opera company were all excited to be visiting Africa, the continent of their ancestors. They were also interested to note the variety of skin tones in the street. When they arrived in Alexandria, they were taken aback to realise that the best jobs in the hotel were all held by white people. The servants in the lounge were Black. “We looked at them and each other. If we wore the same clothing no one would be able to say we were not members of the same family, yet we couldn’t hold a conversation. (Europeans and white Americans are not surprised to see their look-alikes speaking foreign languages; but except for meeting a few African students in Europe, we had never seen a large group of Black people whose culture, language and life styles were different from our own.”
A little later on she wrote, when she was been courted by a white man, “I needed to think great thoughts about myself and Africa and slavery and Islam, I didn’t want a white man at my side – in fact, I didn’t want anyone distracting me.” This was obviously a time when Black consciousness was directed with Hope towards pan-Africanism; I’m not sure why Islam was considered more authentic than Christianity. “Beggars still hounded our footsteps and the audiences which shouted Bravos at our performances were largely European, but I felt I was at last in Africa – in a continent at the moment reeling yet rising, released from the weight of colonialism, which had ridden its back for generations.”
Nevertheless, in Egypt, the Black men in subservient positions at an Arabic house make all the Afro-Americans feel profoundly uncomfortable.
The overriding characteristic that Maya Angelou conveyed in this book is her sense of her own worth and independence. She stood up for her rights, refused to tell lies (though she later learned to withhold the full truth when necessary) and refused to be used. When a foreign man professed undying love for her, she realised that he wanted to marry her for a green card but “what made marriage impossible was the fact I would have been embarrassed even if I loved the man, which I didn’t. No amount of kindness or fidelity on his part would erase the idea that I had bought a mate with a licence that gave me little personal gratification: American citizenship.”
Maya Angelou seems to have been constantly pushing against the boundaries of what her friends and family considered wise in her own private exploration of the world. It’s what made her who she was and what makes her so wonderful to read about.